Apple CEO Steve JobsThe 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?

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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Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak actually "invented and developed" the computers that we all use. I know their names and everything they stood and still stand for will and should carry on the future for Apple's world.

January 20 2011 at 12:39 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

a company of this caliber needs to do sucession planning for the future, if they did not plan for this it is there fault,,,and let them fail. no man is an island. henry ford and many others like him have gone away,,,and those companys continue to make it.

January 19 2011 at 10:08 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Oh my, What will the world be without Steve Jobs? He "could turn the tides
and calm the angry seas". He who is Unique. He is all too human and has
succumb to th great equalizer-illness. I wish him nothing but the best but
the world will continue as a worse or perhaps better place wihout Mr. Jobs
and his maniacal followers.

January 19 2011 at 5:27 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

If I had extra cash to invest Http:// I'm not sure I'd invest in Apple right now.

January 19 2011 at 4:57 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

i can't wait for Apple to tank again just like it did the first time Jobs left. It was so cool that "evil Microsoft" bailed them out with 15 billion in cash with the provision Apple had to run Microsoft office. I can't wait for it Microsoft will again bail them out but with the provision they run Win7 or else.

January 19 2011 at 4:20 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply


January 19 2011 at 3:27 PM Report abuse -4 rate up rate down Reply

Let's not forget that Apple has a fanatical core of 3,000,000 to 5,000,000 customers that will buy ANYTHING that Appple comes out with. I have a couple of friends that are Apple fanatics and each has piles off old Apple products in their houses, and buy/upgrade anything Steve Jobs tells them they need. These same people will continue to buy Apple even if Steve Jobs is not around.

January 19 2011 at 1:49 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to sporty1jro's comment

You have a couple of idiots for friends

January 19 2011 at 3:27 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Cook & Co. won't accomplish it. Job's is the single, driving force behind Apple and without him they'll become another Dell or Gateway.

January 19 2011 at 1:45 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Brian's comment

It has become pretty obvious that Steve's next product will be based on a bowling ball! It's very secret, but I was told in confidence that it's just a test to see if these Apple goons will buy anything that STEVE reccomends!

January 20 2011 at 5:12 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

"More than any other company, it has made computers an intimate part of our lives." Is the author on drugs??? A company that only has 5% of the computer market cannot be credited like that. Microsoft owns over 90% of the computer market and they, NOT Apple, are the ones that, more than any other company, made computers an intimte part of our lives. Apples only reason for it's huge success is the iPod and iPhone. That's where they made their money, and also by controlling software and software product exclusively by Apple. All Apple products are expensive and that is why their stocks are so high. You cannot do that selling products unless you have excessively gross profit margins on the products you sell.

January 19 2011 at 1:44 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Here's my problem. Jobs doesn't want to discuss his health. If he were some mid-level manager, that would be fine. But, he's CEO. Shareholders have a right to know what the issue is, what the prognosis is, and how long is Jobs expecting to be on leave.

When Charlie Bell, then CEO of McDonald's was diagnosed with cancer, the company was far more forthcoming about the situation.

January 19 2011 at 1:36 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Kent's comment

Steve Jobs is as controlling of his personal life as he is about his products.

January 19 2011 at 1:45 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply