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An Apple without Steve Jobs, and other questions yet to be answered

An Apple without Steve Jobs, and other questions yet to be answered

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Steve Jobs may have just resigned from his role as Apple's CEO, but he's not going anywhere.

If you read Jobs' letter last night (and the accompanying press release), it's fairly easy to see that. What happened less than twenty-four hours ago was more a formalizing of a long-standing arrangement between Jobs, Tim Cook, and the company both men work for than it was a major shift in roles. Tim will receive the official title of CEO and continue to manage day-to-day operations at Apple, but Jobs will be there, as Chairman of the Board, as Apple employee number two. Still leading, still giving cues, still brainstorming and critiquing.

That much seems clear to me not only from the tone and wording of Steve's letter, but from what I've heard from numerous industry sources.

This hierarchy is not wildly different than what has already been happening (and what has happened in the past) at Apple. When Jobs took his last leave of absence this past January, Tim Cook stepped into the role of CEO in most ways you can conceive of. And why not? He's done this on numerous occasions, starting way back in 2004, then again in January of 2009, and finally one last time at the beginning of this year. This is a long, tested, familiar structure, and it has worked amazingly well for Apple. As many have already pointed out, the company's rise during these past few years has been meteoric, and that's thanks in no small part to the leadership and steady hand of Tim Cook.

So what Apple looks like today, tomorrow, and maybe even years down the road isn't going to dramatically change. Steve will still be there, navigating — if not outright piloting — the big ship in Cupertino, still bringing his strange and brilliant mixture of talents to the table, still being the company's toughest critic and most ardent defender. And Tim will be there as well, keeping that famous cool, making sure deadlines are met and plans are put into action. Apple will be Apple, just as we know it now.

But the question that has been knocking around my brain over the past day, and honestly long before Steve Jobs penned his resignation letter, is this: what does Apple look like once Steve Jobs is really no longer there?

There has been an enormous amount of noise made concerning Jobs' health and his ability to remain active at Apple in the press. Some of that noise has been addressed by the company and Steve, but most of it remains untouched. I won't speculate on the details of Jobs' health issues, but I think it's reasonable to say that what ails him is clearly quite serious. Questions of health or time are not what interest me here, however, because the inevitability is that there will be a time when Steve Jobs simply isn't there — and I'm not sure that anyone knows what Apple looks like after that point.

To understand how serious this question is, you have to understand the kind of unbridled genius that is Steve Jobs. You'll find no shortage of articles today in praise and tribute to what Jobs has done at Apple, and this is one occasion where the well-wishes, the fond remembrances... the genuflection, even, is truly justified.

Jobs is a perfectionist, a wildly creative guy, a control-freak. All these things, and more. You may love or hate Apple products, but you cannot deny the massive impact the company and its devices and software have had on the world. And the creation of those devices and those pieces of software wasn't just approved or critiqued by Steve Jobs — much of it was dreamed up and birthed by him, directly and indirectly. Devices like the iPod, iPad, and iPhone, iTunes and the App Store ecosystems, and software like iMovie or iOS wasn't simply developed in an echo-chamber of market research and focus groups; they were literally invented by Steve Jobs and a team of people that he hand-picked. This group of people, led by Jobs, have been doing something most people could only fantasize about — not just dreaming up the future, but making that future real.

If you read Google senior vice president Vic Gundotra's memory of an encounter with Jobs in 2008 (and you really should) about the way Google's logo was displaying on the iPhone, you start to get a sense of what kind of leader and thinker Steve Jobs is. There's a kind of pathos, almost insanity to the man in that story. The idea that the head of a massive corporation like Apple would spend even a moment on such a crazy, minute detail is nearly impossible to believe, but my impression is that that kind of interaction is par for the course with Steve Jobs. God isn't in the details, Steve is — and he's a really tough critic.

So back to my question. What does Apple look like when you take Steve Jobs fully out of the equation? Will it still feel like Apple? Clearly the company takes this question seriously — it even hired someone to figure out what makes Apple Apple and then codify those learnings.

Tim Cook may be brilliant at holding the reins on the company where it is right now, and Apple may have its product lineup planned through 2015, but I can't stop thinking that there will come a time when some of that crazy brilliance is called for. There will come a time when someone needs to look at a product and say "no," or "we can do it better," or "this gradient doesn't look right to me."

Make no mistake about it, there is no replacing Steve Jobs. The world only gets one Steve Jobs. But something will have to come around the bend for Apple. I have trouble believing that there wouldn't be a hunt (or at least a desire) for another kind of visionary, someone who will ask the hard questions and dream the big dreams — and something tells me that person isn't Tim Cook.

Perhaps we've already met that next visionary, or perhaps they have yet to be discovered.

One thing is certain: I don't know what an Apple without Steve Jobs looks like. And maybe Apple doesn't either.