Apple has famously flown a pirate flag, dismissed conventional business practices, and run the company in nontraditional ways. It seems to be working so far. This isn't an argument that Apple is exactly like a startup, but there are some key indicators that highlight how Apple is run differently when compared to any other multibillion dollar technology company such as Google, IBM, or Microsoft.
The $475B Startup(ish)
The number of technology product categories that Apple participates in in shockingly small for a company that size. It could be argued that Apple's focus on their products has never been better. Their newer products are selling in record numbers with their older products outpacing their respective industries. This focus is far more aligned with a startup mentality - "If we can just do this one thing perfectly..." The focus is very apparent, even to a fault in some cases.
It is unfortunate that given this focus on products, often the services often come across as afterthoughts. iWork's overhaul last summer stripped several features from the Mac version to align it with the iOS version, and rumors suggest it was because they didn't have time to bring the iOS version up to align with the Mac version. iMessages have improved significantly, but there are still reports of problems when 2-3+ devices are involved (I haven't had a single issue since iOS 7 + Mavericks using iPhone/iPad/Mac).
Betting the Rent Money
With every hardware product Apple makes, they pour their heart and soul into it, and they don't have a Plan B. When they design a product there are plenty of other similar designs that were passed over, but they aren't Plan B. They weren't "perfect" and therefore will not be produced.
Apple has had the "bet the rent money" approach ever since Jobs' return to the company when they literally were betting their final dollars that they could turn it around with stunning products. It is inspiring to see just how much of that still remains given the size of the wallet backing them.
Perhaps the same drive that used to be fueled by the possibility of going out of business is now fueled by meeting expectations. Apple has made it clear they hold themselves to a higher standard, so it makes sense that the world around them has done the same. Whatever it is, it has the outward appearance of them betting the rent money on each new product.
Product Comes First
Startups are concerned with monetizing their product eventually, but first they need to have a product to monetize. The overwhelming trend these days seems to be getting funding to allow you to work on the product, refine it, make it the best possible version you had in mind, then release it. Once it has a hold in the market, it is time to plan for long term monetization.
It isn't exactly an approach that works in traditional business historically, but times have changed. One million visitors to a new restaurant would be impossible, but one million users of a new app is just getting started for the new age Silicon Valley startup.
Apple is similar, though not identical. The mechanism for profit is very clear. There are two ways to see that - it either means they're operating like a startup and saying "the best or nothing" without worrying about anything besides the product or they're in a privileged position and don't need to worry about anything besides the product. Apple fans want to believe the former, but plenty of people could argue the latter.
It might be too early to tell, but the strongest indicator I think of is what happens longer term. Apple has had plenty of money for quite some time now, if they keep the focus and keep the bar high, then it suggests to me that they're operating more like a startup, putting the product before everything. If they grow stagnant, uninspiring, or boring, then we'll know it was the latter.
This is worth highlighting outside of the "focus" section because it is the cornerstone to how their design cycle works. There have been countless articles written about how new iOS devices are stagnant, uninspiring, and boring. In fact, just about every iOS device has been accused of such things. The sales of the devices suggest those people are wrong, but their comments have some validity.
For many, the length of the list of features is paramount. The key difference between those that believe iOS devices aren't progressing fast enough and the way Apple designs them is that Apple says "no" when competitors say "yes". It doesn't result in a product for everyone, but it does result in a beautifully simple product. No NFC, no big screened phone, no 3rd party access to Touch ID, no inter-app sharing, etc. All of these were carefully considered, but not implemented (some yet, some ever).
You can have the simplicity that has made Apple's products stand out and sell by the millions, or you can have the laundry list of features. I don't believe Apple's style of doing business would survive long term if they abandon their ability to say "no". One of my favorite quotes from Jobs highlights it nicely (notice how he calls them good ideas):
People think focus means saying yes to the thing you've got to focus on. But that's not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I'm actually as proud of the things we haven't done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things. - Steve Jobs
Only Time Will Tell
It is far too early to know how this story ends. Their rise from the ashes has been astonishing, but they haven't been at the top for that long. A decade in the technology industry is a long time, but in the business world it is not. It is at a time like this that their actions will tell us what kind of company they are - a hungry "startup" that picks a target and ferociously works to beat it (even if that target is a product of their own) or the complacent rich kid who doesn't appreciate how they got to where they are.