Apple Can Succeed Without Steve Jobs, but Can It Still Be Apple?

Apple CEO Steve Jobs
Apple CEO Steve Jobs

The last time Steve Jobs took a medical leave of absence from his job as CEO of Apple (AAPL), the debate stretched on for months: Can Apple survive for a stretch without him? Will the company's new products still become hits? Can its other managers fill in for a leader who is both visionary and detail-obsessed?

The answer to all those questions, we know now, is yes. Which may be why, now that Jobs is taking a third medical leave of absence, the debate has been much shorter. It took pretty much one day for the consensus to swing toward a sense that Apple would do just fine over the coming year. As if to dispel lingering doubts, Apple posted a blowout financial quarter Tuesday and followed up with bullish guidance.

Missing in Action: Charisma and Panache

Word of Jobs' leave hit on Martin Luther King Day, a market holiday, giving the news cycle plenty of time to digest it. In overseas markets where Apple trades, the stock fell as much as 8% from its Friday closing price of $348.48. But following its earnings announcement Tuesday, the stock surged as high as $353.29.

On the earnings call with analysts, the inevitable questions about what Apple would do during Jobs' leave were muted. Instead, analysts focused questions on Apple's future and where its technology and its markets are heading. Chief Operating Officer Tim Cook, who is again taking over day-to-day operations in the CEO's absence, fielded the questions well, even if he lacked much of the charisma and panache that Jobs always brings to public events.

Still, if Apple can thrive for at least the next year or so without Jobs as actively involved, another question remains: How long will Apple thrive once he retires? There's a somewhat ghoulish aspect to the public discussion of any person's prospects when facing cancer -- it's a private matter that deserves to remain private. But every CEO's tenure ends at some point, and every company must adapt to that departure, especially when the CEO's stamp is as indelible as Jobs' is on Apple.

A Man, a Plan, a Brand: Jobs Is Apple

During the last round of questions on the topic of a post-Jobs Apple, I wrote that the company would continue to be a success and an innovator in technology for some time without him, and I still believe that. But there are a few key factors that Apple will have to deal with once Jobs stops managing the company, even in a reduced capacity.

The question is not so much will Apple survive Jobs or still be as successful without him? The question is, how can Apple fill in the gaps that Jobs will leave once he retires?

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Apple's future will be complicated enough as it navigates rivalries with Google (GOOG) and the many smartphone and tablet makers working to match and even improve on the iPhone and the iPad. Jobs' ideas on how personal computers should work took him decades to make real. It will take much less time for others to copy the results.

Complicating this competitive market is that, when Jobs steps down he'll be taking a good part of the brand with him, especially his ability to reframe debates -- as he did with Java -- and to launch products. The iPad was much discussed in 2010, but the discussion peaked back in January, before it was even for sale. That was the month Jobs unveiled it to the public.

Apple's other executives haven't conveyed anywhere near the same charisma when they've make public presentations. That will have an affect on Apple's brand, not just in the tech press but in the broader public.

The absence of a charismatic leader may affect the chemistry of the management team that Jobs has assembled at Apple. It has been pointed out often enough how deep the talent is among these executives. It's not as clear whether Jobs is the glue holding it together, and whether Cook can continue to manage the team as well. Some key players could depart if they feel the company has changed without Jobs.

No More Worlds to Conquer?

Apple has also thrived because of Jobs' legendary -- and surprisingly effective -- stubbornness. The iPod's success was driven, in good part, by iTunes. And iTunes worked because of the concessions Jobs won from music labels, concessions that no other executive had been able to win. Jobs also pushed AT&T (T) into heavy compromises when it signed an exclusive arrangement with it for the iPhone. Apple's partners may not see such a strong negotiator in Jobs' successors.

Then there's the question of Apple's long-term vision. Over the weekend, The Wall Street Journal ran a column asking if Apple's best years were behind it. The reason had less to do with Jobs' leave of absence -- the piece ran before it was announced -- and more to do with the author's belief that there are no more worlds for Apple to conquer. And nearly a year ago, when Jobs had turned 55, DailyFinance saw him nearing the final stage in his career and that Jobs was considering his legacy at Apple.

He has long believed that computers should be as easy to use and maintain as other appliances. He dreamed of a tablet-like device long before the iPad was designed. Now that he has turned those ideas into realities, Apple needs a new long-term vision. Otherwise, the company will simply become a caretaker for the things Jobs wanted to achieve decades ago.

More Than a Tech Company

Cook and other executives at Apple can achieve all this. I'm not arguing that it's over for Apple, or that they can't keep Apple in the forefront of innovation and customer satisfaction. That's the easier task.

The thing is this: Apple is more than a tech company, it's a longtime cultural phenomenon and an inspiration to engineers, designers and creative people in other industries. More than any other company, it has made computers an intimate part of our daily lives. Apple can remain that kind of icon, but to do so will mean filling in all the gaps that Jobs will leave when he retires.

That's the harder task, and I can't imagine how Cook & Co. will accomplish it.

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