Alyson Levin drove up from Philadelphia with friends, counting "Think Different" billboards along the way. "This is a cultural event," said Levin, 19.

John Van Sickle, an Emory University sophomore, had never seen Steve Jobs in person before. He rushed the stage to get an up-close look at Apple Computer Inc.'s icon-in-chief, who had just unveiled the company's clam-shaped laptop, the iBook, to an overflow crowd at the Macworld Exposition here Wednesday.

It's the mark of the realm at Apple Computer that when times are good, company trade shows can resemble revival concerts (think "MacStock"). And times are giddy for the resurgent personal computer maker known for its quirky industrial designs, cult-like user community and corporate soap operas.

This month, Apple reported its seventh straight profitable quarter, safely removed from the gush of red ink that marked what seemed to be its death spiral two years ago. Apple's stock price has jumped nearly 50 percent since April to reach its highest levels in six years.

But there's always more to the Apple story than what traditional business indicators can measure. When it's at its best, the company has tapped into deep-seated emotional rhythms in America's consumer culture, becoming one of the few "lifestyle brands" in a personal computer realm defined by sameness--be it of software (Microsoft's Windows), of chips (Intel's) or of drab, beige casings (practically every PC).

In a sector obsessed with high power and low cost, Apple has provided something else altogether--style. And to the surprise of many, style is selling.

Last August, Apple introduced the hood-shaped iMac computer, whose loud colors ("flavors") have become synonymous with the reinvented company. Nearly 2 million of the machines have been sold in less than a year, Jobs reported in New York last week. "They've become almost pervasive in our culture," he gushed.

Spurred by the iMac, Apple's share of the retail desktop personal computer market has jumped to more than 10 percent, up from 3 percent in late 1997. Jobs, who returned to the company he co-founded after a 12-year absence in 1997, is credited with cutting costs, streamlining product offerings, and restoring focus to what had become a disjointed and dispirited operation.

Since his return, Apple has regained its stature as an iconoclast to be reckoned with--or at least studied--as a mass-market phenomenon.

"The revival of the Macintosh is like the revival of the Volkswagen Bug," said Regis McKenna, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist and Jobs mentor who spearheaded Apple's earliest marketing and public relations campaigns in the 1970s. The analogy to cars is apt, he said. Both cars and computers are intricately wired consumer machines whose identities are often defined by cosmetic features.

"People often make their decisions on cars by size and shape, not functionality," McKenna said. "Same with computers."

In his Macworld speech, Jobs marveled like a kid at the iBook design features. "Look at the back of these things," he said, turning over a tangerine-colored machine. "The back is more beautiful than the front of the other guys' computers."

Then he fixated on the charger, a ring-like contraption stuck on the back. "This is the charger," he said. "It's really beautiful, isn't it?"

"Killer, killer," an audience member kept saying.

"Apple's new computers look like candy," said Marshall Blonsky, an expert on pop-culture symbols and the author of a 1992 critique on contemporary icons, "American Mythologies." The symbol, said Blonsky, a longtime Apple watcher, is that the personal computer has been domesticated, made friendly, brought to life.

"For the last number of years, beige and black has dominated this industry," said Phil Schiller, Apple's vice president of worldwide marketing. "We feel like we're the only ones willing to go out on a limb and be revolutionary."

This has been an enduring theme at Apple since April Fool's Day of 1976, when Jobs and boyhood pal Steve Wozniak launched the company in a Silicon Valley garage. In the early years, the company flew a pirate flag outside its corporate headquarters in Cupertino, Calif.

Yet there's a delicate line between cherished icon and banished outcast, and Apple has floundered on the wrong side of the divide for much of this decade. Even as its comeback has been widely acclaimed, its fight for survival was painfully chronicled as well. The company lost nearly $2 billion between 1995 and 1997, suffered calamitous tenures by three CEOs in four years and endured a laughable run of public relations nightmares--the worst being reports that some Apple Powerbook machines were inexplicably bursting into flames.

"It got to a point where some people were embarrassed to say they worked at Apple," said Guy Kawasaki, a longtime Apple employee and "chief evangelist" (his actual job title) who left Apple last year to found Garage.com, a Silicon Valley start-up that supports new technology businesses.

Kawasaki said Apple's evolution under Jobs has been simple. The company, he said, has stopped trying to fit into the prevailing PC market and has begun to again trumpet its distinctiveness. "What's the difference between isolationism and idiosyncrasy?" Kawasaki said. "Steve Jobs is the difference."

Apple's ubiquitous "Think Different" ad campaign is the best example of this, a multimedia celebration of this century's noted pioneers, such as Jackie Robinson and Albert Einstein.

Jobs hired Lee Clow, the advertising executive at TBWA Chiat/Day who created the spots for the first Macintoshes in the 1980s. Jobs bolstered the company's ad budget--to more than $100 million--and personally chose which great thinkers would be given Apple's "Think Different" seal of genius.

"Apple seized on the cliche of differentiation in a world that constrains," said Blonsky. "People love the idea that they're doing something revolutionary, even when they're buying a machine."

People close to Apple say Jobs's biggest contributions have been of a far less visible variety than the billboards. "By all accounts, Steve has been able to mix his Woodstock inspiration with some real operational excellence," McKenna said. His brash and mercurial style can rankle and intimidate, and Jobs lacks for no detractors in the Valley.

"Steve rules with an iron fist, and that can be both good and bad," said software engineer Bruce Thompson, who left Apple in October 1997 to join 3Com Corp. Thompson, who was attending the Apple WorldWide Developer Conference in San Jose in May, said he still roots hard for Apple. "But I left with a lot of personal animosity toward Steve Jobs," he said. (Apple officials would not make Jobs available for this story.)

Jobs's renowned impatience contributed to his departure from Apple in 1985 after a dispute with then-CEO John Sculley. He founded Next Inc. shortly after he left, and 11 years later he sold the software company to Apple for $425 million. He also persuaded then-Apple chief executive Gilbert F. Amelio to bring him back as a "consultant" as part of the deal.

It didn't take long for Jobs to assert authority beyond his informal job description. He showed open disdain for Amelio around the office, rating acts of incompetence by numbers of "Gils" and deriding members of Amelio's executive team as "bozos." Shortly after Amelio resigned in July 1997, Jobs agreed to become interim CEO.

Jobs quickly eliminated most of the projects he inherited--the hand-held Newton computer, for instance--and kept only those he considered most aligned with Apple's focus on the education and consumer markets.

Despite the company's recent success, Apple under Jobs is a place of reduced ambitions. The iBook introduction completes Apple's scaled-back portfolio, which includes the iMac, G3 desktop computers and Powerbook laptops.

"Their numbers look great, but it's at a decimated level compared to where they were," said Megan Graham-Hackett, an analyst at Standard & Poor's Equity Group. Apple's 1998 revenue, $6 billion, pales next to the $11 billion it generated in 1995.

It remains unclear how long Jobs will stay in charge. After two years, he has not bothered to shed the "interim" from his CEO title, and he has not made any long-term commitments. He has another full-time job, too--as CEO of Pixar Animation Studios, the digital-animation company that created the blockbuster film "Toy Story."

Few chief executives are so intimately linked to their company mythologies as Jobs is to Apple. "Most great business brands come with a back story, a legend, and Jobs is central to that at Apple," said Robert Pittman, a longtime Mac fan and the president of America Online Inc. Some Apple followers wonder if the company could sustain its run without their chief executive and spiritual leader.

Likewise, there are industry watchers who will still roll their eyes at any mention of Apple Computer Inc. "Reports of Apple's resurrection are greatly exaggerated," said Howard Anderson, president of the Yankee Group, a technology research firm in Boston. "They have a hot box, and the packaging is neat, but the company is essentially making novelty items."

Anderson said Apple has been irreversibly marginalized. With the Microsoft-Intel domination of the PC industry stretching into its second decade, fewer developers have created software for the Apple platform. In addition, Macs have generally sold at premium prices--more than $2,000--and sub-$1,000 PCs are the fastest-growing segment of the market.

If nothing else, though, Anderson says Apple has bought itself another shot at relevance. It is broadening its base of users--Jobs frequently points out that one-third of all iMac buyers are new computer users.

Above all, the company has again turned a cold technology tool into a personal statement.

"Apple has tapped into a basic human emotion," Pittman said. "There are some consumers who don't want their computers to look like industrial machines stolen from the office."

The return of Apple also bespeaks a factor of cultural evolution, Marshall Blonsky said. Personal computers have become standard to American life, to a point where there's now a critical level of trust in the machines. They have been demystified to a degree. Consumers have reached a comfort point, enough that they're willing to concern themselves with more frivolous things, such as color.

"There's a message in the [iMac] colors," said Michael Wolfinbarger, a software developer who works for the Oklahoma Climatological Survey, at the University of Oklahoma. He was attending the worldwide developers conference in San Jose.

"The message is, you worry about the color you want, we've taken care of the technology inside." If Apple is healthy, he said, it means individualism is alive. "This is good for the computer industry," Wolfinbarger said.

"It's good for the world."

A Sweet Time for Apple

Highlights of Apple Computer:

1976: Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak form Apple Computer after creating a new computer circuit board.

1980: Apple goes public.

1983: Apple hires former Pepsi executive John Sculley as chief executive.

1984: The Macintosh is introduced.

1985: Woznik and Jobs leave after a power struggle with Sculley over the Macintosh vs. the Apple II.

1993: After Apple's Newton personal digital assistant flops, Sculley is replaced by Michael Spindler, Apple's president and chief operating officer.

1996: Apple posts a $69 million loss for the last three months of 1995, and Spindler is replaced in February by board member Gilbert Amelio, chief executive of National Semiconductor Corp.

1997: Amelio resigns as Apple continues to post poor performances, and Jobs comes back as interim chief executive.

1998: Apple introduces the iMac, which immediately becomes a hot seller.

July 14, 1999: Apple posts its seventh straight profitable quarter.

July 21: Apple unveils the iBook laptop.

SOURCES: Associated Press, Bloomberg News, other news reports