Dana Stibolt was in his early 20s when he started seriously tinkering with Apple computers at his parents' computer shop in Severna Park. It was the late 1980s and the computer that he taught himself to fix was called the Macintosh Plus.
Stibolt developed an expertise in fixing the computers and he was willing to take his knowledge to the homes and offices of desperate customers. He turned his car into a moving inventory of spare computer parts, becoming, in effect, a computer doctor who made house calls. His company, MacMedics, was born.
"I was driving around Annapolis, Severna Park, Baltimore, D.C. at times," Stibolt, 41, said in a recent interview. "I had a Toyota Tercel station wagon that was completely packed with service parts and hard drives ... anything I could possibly need because I didn't have an office. It's the model of the mobile repairman, but nobody had ever done it with Macintosh computers."
Stibolt's fortunes in the Apple computer repair business have ebbed and flowed with the computing powerhouse's failures and successes over the past two decades, but his company has been largely a tale of steady growth. His business is among about a half-dozen small, independent local companies that have survived and still cater to Mac owners in the Baltimore area, according to Apple's Web site.
Over the years, Stibolt has watched Apple introduce several lines of computers, reinstall co-founder Steve Jobs as a company leader, launch the successful iPod and iPhone, and open more than 200 retail stores - potential competitors to his repair business - across the country.
In 1997, Apple posted a $1 billion loss on sales of $7 billion. Last year, the company reported a $4.8 billion profit on sales of $32.5 billion. Apple's rival, Microsoft Corp., made $60 billion in revenue last year, with $17 billion in profit, according to its annual report.
In addition to selling direct online through its own and a handful of other Web sites, Apple has thousands of authorized resellers - from big-box stores to small, privately run shops - and an unspecified number of authorized service providers who can repair its products.
In the past, Apple has had a tense relationship with its resellers, of whom Stibolt is one. Many store operators feared Apple's retail stores launched in 2001 would force the small authorized resellers out of business.
The company did not return a call seeking comment.
Stibolt, who dropped out of college, thinks the Apple stores have generally helped his business - partly because they're so busy that he gets customers through referrals. He talks about Apple the way a precocious young adult might point out the flaws and strengths of his parents. But after years of fixing the company's computers, he still thinks its machines are better than PCs.
"There's no doubt I'm an Apple fanboy," Stibolt said. "People are always asking my opinion and I tell them I'm the wrong person to ask. I own both, and the Mac is better. There's just no question about it."
Some of MacMedics' biggest growth spurts came early in his business, when other shops gave up on fixing Apple computers, thinking the company would go out of business. Stibolt now employs 20 workers and has three offices that serve the Baltimore, Washington and Philadelphia markets.
But he's also expanded into consulting for companies looking to build corporate networks with Apple computers and servers. His company has expertise in integrating Macs and PCs. For most of its existence, the company's been profitable, Stibolt said.
Another local company, Chesapeake Systems Inc. in Hampden, has also seen steady growth in revenues, mainly in the realm of digital media production, networking and storage. About five years ago, the company decided to focus on becoming expert on Final Cut Studio - Apple's powerful video-editing software program that's now able to make feature films, television shows and video news reports on television and the Web.
The software's popularity has grown as more companies turn to video production, and Chesapeake now does six-figure projects for companies looking to upgrade their video production efforts.
Nick Gold, Chesapeake's sales manager, said the company works closely with Apple to help large customers - from television stations to government agencies - roll out Mac-based systems that can handle production and storage of video in networks and archives. Now the company is pursuing contracts in the seven-figure range, Gold said. It has a small repair business, too.
"Frankly, we're busier than we've ever been," said Gold, who's been with Chesapeake for five years. The company's owners, president Mark Dent and chairman George Brecht, have seen revenues grow about 20 percent annually in recent years, Gold said, but he declined to release revenue figures since Chesapeake is privately held.
Because it is designated a "value added reseller" by Apple for its niche knowledge in its video production offerings, this small Hampden company is starting to broaden its market beyond Baltimore, Gold said.
"We're lucky," Gold said, about specializing in Apple's video offerings. "We made some calls and it turned out well for us."