Can Apple Survive Without Jobs?

Rumors about the health of its indispensable CEO cast a shadow over the company's future

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Jeff Chiu / AP

Apple CEO Steve Jobs

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But then on Jan. 5, Jobs appeared, photonically if not in the flesh, via an e-mail to the "Apple Community." He disputed "stories of me on my deathbed" but admitted he had been "losing weight throughout 2008" and said, "The reason has been a mystery to me and my doctors. A few weeks ago, I decided that getting to the root cause of this and reversing it needed to become my #1 priority."

Jobs wrote that he's suffering from a "hormone imbalance that has been 'robbing' me of the proteins my body needs to be healthy," noting that the remedy is "relatively simple and straightforward." A number of medical commentators found that explanation lacking. The CEO said that it would take until late spring for him to regain his weight but that he would continue as Apple's CEO during his recovery.

It's doubtful that the obsession with Jobs and his health will end anytime soon, given how well he has positioned the company. Apple's computer division had a record year in fiscal 2008 and sold 9.7 million Macs, enjoying a growth rate twice that of the industry average. And that's actually the least interesting part of Apple's business. With the advent of the iPod and the follow-on success of the iTunes Store, Apple has sold 6 billion songs in six years to some 75 million people.

And the iPod is nothing compared with what the iPhone is bound to become. Anyone who thinks it's a cell phone with a college education hasn't been paying attention. The iPhone is the first true mobile computer. Together with the Apple App Store, which has more than 10,000 free and cheap applications for the iPhone and iPod Touch, Apple--that is, Jobs--has built a platform that will generate billions of dollars.

Beyond that, Jobs' Apple has helped right the music, TV and film industries, whose business models had been upended by the promise of free everything on the Internet. His coveted devices gave people a reason--and a way--to pay for media again.

And if rumors are to be believed, Jobs could do the same thing for the print business. (Please! Hurry!) Tech blog Techcrunch reported recently that Apple is working on a 7- or 9-in. (18 or 23 cm) iPod Touch--big enough to read on comfortably--which is expected to be out later this year.

So the stakes are high for us all--not just investors. Which takes us back to Jobs and his health. Is there life at Apple after he retires? Or, God forbid, dies?

Plenty of companies with charismatic leaders can still thrive after they're gone, says Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor at Stanford University's business school. Recent examples include Wal-Mart, Southwest Airlines and the Mayo Clinic, he says. The trick lies in the ability of successors to understand what made a company great--and preserve that part of the culture. And what's Jobs' secret sauce? "Most company leaders do what everyone else does," says Pfeffer. "The genius of Jobs is to get his company and its people to get out of that rut--to not follow the crowd but lead it."

No one outside the famously secretive Apple knows what, if any, succession plans Jobs has in mind. Observers speculate that Apple COO Tim Cook, design chief Jonathan Ive and dark horse Tony Fadell (who took the iPod idea to Jobs) are in the hunt--and, of course, Schiller, who, after enduring the horror of Macworld, might deserve the job.

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