Remember When Apple Was the J.C. Penney of the Tech World?

Steve Jobs 1997
Steve Jobs 1997

There's no question that what Apple (AAPL) has accomplished in the past 15 years is truly remarkable. All of the new products, the innovative retail stores, and the explosive stock price have put the company in a class above anyone else.

But what's even more remarkable is where Apple was when Steve Jobs returned to the company in 1997.

Back then, Apple was hardly a healthy tech company. In fact, it was struggling to even survive.

What Happens When Giants Fumble

Turnarounds are what legends are made of. The much more common outcome of a revival plan is what appears to be happening right now to another big brand -- J.C. Penney (JCP).

Earlier this week, J.C. Penney's merchandising and marketing head, company President Michael Francis, stepped down not long after the company reported an 18.9% drop in quarterly sales. Francis was a star at Target (TGT) and was supposed to team with another Target alum, the man behind Apple's retail kingdom, CEO Ron Johnson, to help turn the struggling retailer around. The star duo hasn't succeeded so far, and another potential turnaround tale appears to be fizzling.

J.C. Penney's story arc could have been Apple's, too.

A Rotting Core Business

In 1997, the year Jobs returned as CEO, Apple saw sales fall 28% to $7.1 billion and the company racking up a loss of $1 billion. Times were so desperate that archrival Microsoft (MSFT) was brought in to invest $150 million to help save the company. (Now Bill Gates has his own $160 billion issues to deal with.)

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The following year, sales fell another 16.1% and Apple's sales would amount to only slightly more than a third of what Microsoft's were. The company was clearly heading in the wrong direction.

The iPod didn't exist. The iPhone wasn't even a twinkle in Steve Jobs' eye. The iPad was more than a decade from being a reality.

If you would have told someone in 1997 that Apple would go on to become the largest company in the world, they would think you were nuts. That's not what happens to dying tech companies trying to compete in a largely commoditized business.

Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs

Now Look Who's Eating Apple's Dust

There simply aren't many stories of turnarounds like this, and none with the incredible rise to fame, fall to disgrace, and rise from near death that Apple went through.

Certainly, other tech giants haven't fared nearly as well as Apple since 1997. They've struggled to adjust from the days of stacking up piles of cash in the 1990s and early 2000s to today's ultra-competitive landscape.

Sony (SNE) has tried almost everything to stay relevant to the younger generation. The company that gained fame by bringing us the Walkman -- the first widely accepted portable music player -- had a similar fall from grace as Apple. But CEO changes, layoffs, and a slew of new products haven't had nearly the same result there as at Apple.

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Dell (DELL) is going through similar trials: Since its peak in 2000 the company can't seem to gain traction. While Apple dominates the high end of the PC market, Dell struggles against low-cost competition from China.

Then there are companies such as Motorola, Zenith, and Kodak: All once were major figures in new technology, but they've been forced into bit player status or bankruptcy. And on the retail side, while Apple's retail presence is expanding, we've watched electronics retailer Circuit City forced to file bankruptcy and Best Buy (BBY) fight to stay relevant.

Making Lightning Strike Twice

Many have tried to copy Apple's retail success. But even the man behind the Apple Store concept, Ron Johnson, has been unable to re-create that hat trick elsewhere.

%Gallery-154119%What Johnson learned at Apple, and what both he and Michael Francis learned at Target hasn't yet given them the keys to turn J.C. Penney into a success. They weren't the first to try a turnaround and they won't be the last, but no one does it like Apple.

For more on three companies that are poised to rule the tech world in the future see The Motley Fool's free in-depth video report.

Motley Fool contributor Travis Hoium manages an account that owns shares of Apple and Microsoft. You can follow Travis on Twitter at @FlushDrawFool. The Motley Fool owns shares of Best Buy and Apple and has sold shares of Sony short. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Apple.