Apple CEO Steve JobsSteve Jobs's surprise appearance at last week's unveiling of the iPad2 made a few things clear: Jobs may be on a medical leave of absence, but he hasn't lost his ability to turn a standard product upgrade into a media event, creating free publicity most gadget makers would kill for.

But Jobs's presence at the event also underscored how vital he's been to Apple's (AAPL) success and how hard it will be for his successors to replace him. I've argued here that Apple after Jobs will likely be successful, although maybe not the cultural phenomenon it is today. To further imagine how Apple might fare without Jobs's leadership, it's also helpful to look at another hugely successful American company that decades ago lost its iconic CEO -- Walt Disney Co. (DIS).

Like Apple, Disney started out in a California garage, growing in time into a global brand that became a part of the everyday culture of millions of people. While Apple's achievement was in making personal computers so intuitive they became intimately integrated with our lives, Disney was a dream factory, creating stories and images that shaped childhood imaginations for generations. (Jobs has also served on Disney's board of directors since Disney's 2006 purchase of Jobs's Pixar animation studio.)

Without Missing a Step

In its heyday, Disney's cultural influence was as large as Apple's is today. During the Depression-era 1930s, Disney changed the animation industry with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first feature-length cartoon and at the time a wildly ambitious project many considered foolhardy. Snow White became the highest-grossing movie up to that time, paving the way for other animated films like Dumbo, Cinderella and Bambi. Disney extended its media empire into TV with longtime staples such as Mickey Mouse Club and the Disneyland series of programs.

In December 1966, Walt Disney died of lung cancer, leaving the company in the hands of his brother Roy. The following six years turned out to be some of the company's most productive as Roy -- a co-founder -- took the reins. During Roy's tenure, Disney released The Jungle Book and The Love Bug -- the latter was the top-grossing movie in 1969 -- and it opened Walt Disney World in Florida in 1971. Roy Disney died in December 1971, leaving the company in the hands of lesser-known managers trained by Walt and Roy.

Roy Disney not only furthered the vision he had shared with Walt, he managed Disney through some of its best years. The chart below shows Disney's stock performance against the Dow Jones Industrial Average for the six years after Walt Disney died. By December 1972, Disney's stock had appreciated 1,140% from December 1966. The Dow had gained only 30%.

After 1972, however, Disney's stock entered a prolonged slump. The cultural climate shifted toward darker, edgier movies and away from the wholesome, family-friendly fare that was Disney's stock in trade. The new management had trouble navigating the changing market. Titles like Freaky Friday and The Rescuers were not only out of step with the times, they were a far cry from the caliber of Disney movies in earlier decades.

Disney would reemerge as a powerful media company in the late 1980s under the management of Michael Eisner, who joined as Disney's CEO in 1984 and served until 2005. But as the following chart shows, Disney's stock would underperform the Dow significantly for 15 years between 1972 and 1987.

What lessons does Disney's history offer Apple? While it's dangerous to read too many similarities into two companies in separate industries, Disney's performance after the loss of its iconic leader has some bearing on Apple's future. Disney thrived for several years after Walt's death for two key reasons: The company was able to build on his vision, and it was managed by Roy, a man who knew Walt's way of thinking as well as anyone.

What Happens Five Years From Now?

Apple seems to be on track for a similar period of success once Jobs ceases to have input into the company's management. Apple's main franchises -- iPhones, iPads, Macbooks and iTunes -- are positioned to continue growing for some time. Tim Cook may not be as experienced as Roy Disney was when he took control of Disney, but Cook's handling of Apple's day-to-day operations has left investors confident in his ability to succeed Jobs.

Instead, the risks for Apple lie, as they did for Disney, several years down the road after the departure of its visionary leader. When Disney's market changed in the '70s, the company wasn't able to adapt as effectively as it might well have under Walt Disney. It simply lacked the instincts and insights needed to keep evolving with the times.

Apple could well face a similar period of crisis down the road. With the iPad, Jobs has achieved his decades-old vision of an immersive, easy-to-use home computer. What vision will guide Apple five years from now? That's a vital question with no clear answer.

Of course, for investors concerned with the next few quarters, what happens to Apple in several years is largely an academic discussion. But for Apple's loyal consumers, and the culture that the company has helped shape over the years, any loss of the company's innovative edge would be felt for a long time.

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I sincerely hope Apple does NOT go the way of Disney. I live in Florida and I have no intention of again going to an overpriced, over-rated, commercial enterprise that counts numbers ratyher than people and offers really nothing for the admission except rides, overpriced food and little in the way of education as it did when Walt was at the helm. I would hope that when Mr. Jobs is not running Apple they continue offering a superior product with better tech support than any microsoft product. My next computer will be Apple after Vista, 7.0 disappointments. Microsoft is cheaper true but you really get what you pay for. Apple owners rarely go back to microsoft. I think the best advertisement that Apple ever had was the Vista program. It sure convinced me. When this POS microsoft HP goes out I will pay more for a superior product. In the same period of time, 10 years, I have had to replace my home computer three times where my friend has the original apple he started with that functions just fine. Even the tech support in my job and for my computer think Apple is a better buy in the long run. I don't think Mr. Jobs is really that stupid do you? Controlling the market means nothing. Walmart is one of the biggest retailers on the planet. Like I said you get what you pay for. Microsoft is the computer Walmart.

March 08 2011 at 10:40 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Apple is going to eventually die after Jobs leaves. If you dont believe this look at the facts. The company does not lead in a single area of personal tech. It is number three with the iphone, behind android and blackberry, in terms of macs it is about 15 ish percent with giants like HP, Sony and Dell controlling the market. In operating system it is about ten percent or slighly more with the market belonging to microsoft. in terms of the iphone---it is dead because it was killed by the iphone, ipad and all other smarthphones coming out. The only product that Apple leads in for now is the Ipad. The reason for this is because it was able to first enter the market however this year every single major tech company will release their own competitive versions. Let us not forget that apple created the first smarthphone but is now number three in that bussiness.

March 07 2011 at 11:46 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to fondofbond1's comment

in terms of the ipod-----it is dead

March 07 2011 at 11:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Apple, after Jobs, will tank and burn. Apple, is not or never has been like, Disney. The difference can be seen in what has happened to Apple during the few time in which Jobs was "way" or "left" Apple (something that Walt never did). During those periods without Jobs, Apple went into a tailspin and was only able to recover with the return of Jobs to Apple.

Will there be an Apple after Jobs exits the stage for the final time? Technically yes, functionally no. Apple will no doubt go along doing little more than tweaking or price pointing their existing product line. As a cost cutting measure they’ll likely drop a some of their existing lines and combine others (the Air Mac (dropped) and all the different iPods (combined) come to mind). When that doesn’t get them back up, those still in charge will likely look at dividing Apple up along hardware/software lines and selling the rights to products like Mac or iPhones, iPods, iPads, etc to third party companies that can do it faster and cheaper (and I mean cheaper, not less expensive) than Apple. The software side (iTunes, OS, etc) could be spun off or combined, as say a iTunes/Napster combination or have the OS for the Macs, iPhones, iPads, iPods, etc produced by Microsoft or more likely Oracle. In the “short term” this would make a post-Jobs Apple seem to investors to be fat and happy, when in fact it would be doing little more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

March 07 2011 at 3:03 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Will the new guy wear something different then a black shirt, sneakers, and jeans?

March 07 2011 at 2:38 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Hello, Jeffrey

Okay, 1st. The Jobs has not died.
2nd. I'm sure Apple has a contingency of new products, ideas, and revenue-making ventures coming down the pipeline for the near present (1-3 yrs), and future (4-10 yrs). If they do not, then Jobs and his executive team has not been doing their jobs. A CEO function should be to grow, produce strategies, and plans to keep the entity admidst new products, new revenues, and new ideas. These lame ass CEOs who only know how to reduce jobs, cut expenses, and buy and sell on the market need to be replaced. Along with their enabling boards!!!!

March 07 2011 at 2:06 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I have faith in Apple to progress into the future without without Jobs. But I hold reservation in it's innovations. Apple grew with Jobs at the helm when they first started. Then Jobs was ousted, and the company started faltering. Struggling quarter after quarter. Then they brought Jobs back, and since then, Apple has been climbing steadily to where it is today. You can't argue with history and current track records. The key thing for a post Jobs Apple, is putting someone at the helm, that has the same (or very similar) vision as Jobs. Perhaps even adding his/her own spin to the company. But more importantly, think about the product first, and money second. Great products, bring in the money. Not the other way around. I just hope that Apple doesn't turn out like Microsoft did after Gates' departure. Micorsoft isn't the same powerhouse as they used to be since he left.

March 07 2011 at 1:09 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Well, it did just fine without Wozniak. Are you kidding?

March 07 2011 at 12:29 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply