Apple Computer Inc.'s interim chief, Steve Jobs, shed the "interim" from his title yesterday, a largely symbolic move that nonetheless affirmed his commitment to the company he began 23 years ago, left for 12 years and then returned to in 1997.

If this were any other company, this title tweak would have been afterthought news--if news at all. But this is Apple, the personal-computing icon, where every move is magnified, especially when it involves its resident idol, Jobs. He has been hailed for reviving Apple from a horrific slump that lasted through much of the 1990s, marked by the systematic loss of market share, top executives and money.

But after taking over from then-chief executive Gilbert Amelio in 1997, Jobs has refused to take the interim out of his title, even while leading Apple's turnaround. Shares of Apple nearly doubled last year on strong sales of the company's signature iMacs, the candy-colored, hood-shaped computers that Jobs unveiled in August 1998. The company also has reported huge orders for iBook laptops, similarly quirky machines that were introduced last summer.

The interim title made some Mac-watchers wary, since few, if any, companies are as closely defined by their chief executives as Apple is by Jobs. Moreover, Jobs has a reputation for being mercurial and prone to impetuous decisions, and some feared that this made Apple's leadership predicament precarious.

The interim title "was a way for Jobs to hedge his bet, and there was a tentativeness behind it that was unnerving," said Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies Group, a San Jose-based computer consulting business.

"It [has] been a long time coming, and it's curious as to why Steve didn't do this sooner," said Megan Graham-Hackett, a technology analyst at the Standard & Poor's Corp. equity group. "Maybe this was a statement to reassure employees and shareholders. But it would have meant a lot more if he had done this six months after he took over."

Jobs made the announcement yesterday, at the end of a speech at the MacWorld Expo trade show in San Francisco, sending his zealous fans into rousing applause. He said he would continue to run Pixar Inc., the animation studio where he is also chairman and chief executive. He gave no details on how much time he will devote to the respective companies, or what substantive effect his announcement would have on his day-to-day role at Apple.

Likewise, Apple officials would not comment on how the permanent status would influence Jobs's salary, which now stands at $1 a year and no stock options.

"We're not getting into the pay issue," said company spokeswoman Katie Cotton, who said Apple would discuss Jobs's compensation on Jan. 19, when the company announces its earnings for the last fiscal quarter.

"We've been able to pull this dual-CEO thing off," Jobs told the boisterous MacWorld crowd. He added that he would continue to refer to himself as Apple's "iCEO," in keeping with the company's oft-stated strategy to become a pervasive "Internet appliance." He had previously tacked on the little "i" to refer to his interim status.

The company yesterday introduced new services on its Web site, including free e-mail, online greeting cards and tools that make it easy for computer users to develop their own Web pages.

"Apple will be one of the 10 most profitable Internet companies in the next 10 years," Jobs said in the speech.

Also yesterday, Apple said it would invest $200 million in EarthLink Network Inc. and that it would make EarthLink its main Internet service provider. This is a blow to America Online Inc., the Dulles-based service provider, the world's largest, which was once a service that catered to Apple's signature Macintosh computers.

EarthLink, based in Pasadena, Calif., will become the second-largest Internet service provider pending the closure of a merger with MindSpring Enterprises Inc. It has recently fashioned itself as a hipper alternative to AOL's mainstream, consumer-oriented image. The Apple alliance further bolsters EarthLink's contenders' cachet.

Shares of Apple rose $1.50, to $104, yesterday; EarthLink jumped $2.81 1/4, to $44.68 3/4.

News of Jobs's ceremonial title adjustment spurred widespread reaction at San Francisco's Moscone Center. It is the latest in a tradition of momentous announcements that Jobs typically saves for MacWorld gatherings. In January 1998, he divulged, unexpectedly, that Apple would turn a first-quarter profit. Six months earlier, he said that longtime rival Microsoft Corp. would invest $150 million in the then-reeling company.

By comparison, yesterday's mini-bombshell was largely ceremonial. But it also marked another chance to note Apple's dramatic turnaround under Jobs. "If you're an Apple shareholder, you should be ecstatic about Steve Jobs in general," Bajarin said. "Taking the 'interim' away was just another reason to feel good."

CAPTION: In a keynote address at MacWorld, Steve Jobs announces he is dropping "interim" from his chief-executive title.

CAPTION: The MacWorld Expo in San Francisco, which began Tuesday and is scheduled through Saturday, is expected to attract more than 100,000 participants.