Despite the growing competition ranged against the company within the digital media markets, Apple may be a tough beast to tame, analysts believe.

American Technology Research analyst Shaw Wu summed up the feeling in a note to clients received by Macworld UK, saying: "It may be difficult for competitors to replicate Apple's easy-to-use user interfaces without infringing on its patents.

Patent persuasion

"Apple is known for its strong legal team and its patents not only cover technology but the "look and feel": interfaces, and methods, too."

Wu rates Apple as a stock to buy with a $77 target price. He expects Apple to have achieved $4.9 billion in revenue in its December quarter with 9.7 million iPods sold in the period. He also expects new products to be released by the company this year will drive revenues and expectations up.

"We believe Apple is well-positioned to continue above market growth rates with arguably the industry's most powerful and complete stack of hardware, software, and services," he said.

Sony faces struggle

Wu pointed to Sony's recent move to hire Apple's former vice president of Interactive Media Tim Schaaff, who let QuickTime software development at the company. Sony wants the former Apple exec to develop a common interface across its digital media products - but despite the critical hire, Sony faces challenges in its task, he opined.

"Unifying different software code from different hardware platforms from different regions, not to mention different ideas and conflicting agendas, may prove time-consuming and difficult to execute," he said.

Apple's focus leads the industry

Apple carries a competitive advantage that's based on more than just its software, Wu explained: "The company's focus, vision, industrial design, and integrated approach with hardware, software, and service help create its easy-to-use and best-selling products.

"We believe this unique approach is engrained in Apple's DNA and culture since its founding in 1976. We believe running a company this way is more difficult to execute than most think and Apple has Steve Jobs, one of technology's top visionaries, who helps it maintain its position as an innovator and trend setter, not a follower."

Piper Jaffray predicts 'Year of the Mac'

Wu also observed that QuickTime's key strength isn't the software itself, but its position as one of the industry standards for video.

Wu isn't alone. Analysts at Piper Jaffray this week also repeated their "Buy" assessment on Apple's stock with a $80 target price, Forbes reports.

Analyst Gene Munster sees, "more upside potential in Apple's business", and observed that while 2005 may have been the "Year of the iPod", 2006 seems set to debut as "The Year of the Mac".

He observed that should new products and popularity drive a Mac market gain of just half a per cent of marketshare this year, it would add 10 per cent to his estimates.

"A 1 per cent market share gain would add 18 per cent," Forbes reports.