By Philip Elmer-DeWitt
January 17, 2011

The company would be different — but not necessarily weaker — without its co-founder

Whenever Steve Jobs takes a medical leave — and the one announced Monday is his third in less than six years — the question invariably arises: What happens to Apple (AAPL) when he leaves the company for good?

The stock — to address the immediate concern of investors — will take a hit. The U.S. markets were closed for Martin Luther King Day when the news hit, but on the Frankfurt exchange Apple shares immediately dropped 7%, shaving more than $22 billion off the company’s market cap.

But Jobs says he is still keeping his hand in the company’s “major strategic decisions,” and if his past medical leaves are any guide, the company — and the stock — will rebound. In July 2004, two weeks before his first operation, Apple reported quarterly sales of just over $2 billion. Tomorrow it is expected to report sales somewhere between $24 and $26 billion.

But Jobs brings something to Apple that’s harder to measure — especially in product development — and that’s the big unknown.

The electronic devices most companies release are compromises. Everybody gets to weigh in — marketing, production, sales, software, etc. — before anything hits the market.

In that respect, Apple is nearly unique. Nothing gets out the door unless it meets Jobs’ exacting standards.

When he leaves, someone else will have the power to make those decisions. But he or she may not have Jobs’ sense, as he once put it, of where the technological puck is headed. And no matter who the new CEO may be, that person will never have the authority that comes from having founded the company, been ousted, and returned to rescue it from bankruptcy.

We don’t hear much about the rest of Apple’s leadership team, in part because Jobs casts such a large shadow. But the fact is, he runs a meritocracy and has surrounded himself with some exceedingly able people.

COO Tim Cook, the man who has stepped in to run the company for the third time this week, is particularly impressive. Jobs may be the visionary, but Cook is the man who makes the supply chain run on time.

Less certain is whether he and his colleagues can keep coming up with products as disruptive as the iPod, iPhone, and iPad.

Apple clearly has a roadmap for extending its existing product lines. It may even have a plan for turning Jobs’ “hobby” — Apple TV — into another multibillion dollar product.

The real test will come when those plans have run their course.

There will be no shortage of naysayers in the weeks ahead. Daring Fireball‘s John Gruber, who follows Apple as closely as anyone, is an optimist. He believes that the most important product Jobs has created since his return is not any of the sleek devices people line up to buy. It’s a company that can not just survive after he’s gone, but keep making a dent in the universe.

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[Follow Philip Elmer-DeWitt on Twitter @philiped]

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