By Adam Lashinsky
January 17, 2011

Apple will be fine, again, under veteran COO Tim Cook. But the day will inevitably come when the board will have to a find a permanent replacement for their iconic leader.

Throughout the long, sad, information-deprived debate over the health of Steve Jobs, there have always been two parallel conversations about would happen if the Apple (AAPL) CEO were to leave his job prematurely.

On the one hand is the question of what would happen to Apple in the near term. That matter was more or less laid to rest during the last two medical emergencies that saw Jobs take temporary leaves: Apple hummed along without a hiccup. Yes, the stock price dropped. (As Phil Elmer-DeWitt reports today, the stock is dropping again in Germany on a U.S. markets holiday.) But under the leadership of Chief Operating Officer Tim Cook, Apple really didn’t miss a beat. It introduced new products, hired new executives, managed complicated product offerings, all while Jobs was in various stages of convalescence.

The bigger question by far is what would happen down the road, after whatever plans Jobs has put in place have played out. The outlook here is far less optimistic. “Anyone who thinks Apple can keep chugging along without Steve is deluding themselves,” says a former Apple executive who isn’t particularly fond of Jobs but nevertheless stands in awe of the CEO’s ability to alternately charm and terrorize his minions.

In thinking the unthinkable, let’s pause for a moment and explicate Apple’s news release today, a classic example of Apple’s singular method of communicating with the world.

There had been whispers in the recent weeks that Jobs had gone AWOL, but the holidays are an easy time to mask an executive’s absence. Apple succeeded in keeping his latest health ills a secret and then issuing a statement from him that said everything and nothing simultaneously. Consider:

  • Apple’s “Media Advisory” is stamped “13.42 UTC” a geeky variant of Greenwich Mean Time, and hit my inbox at 5:47 a.m. in California. With no knowledge of what events led to the announcement, it’s worth noting that the statement comes on a day U.S. markets are closed. Apple investors have a full day to digest the news. The two media contacts listed on the advisory will have nothing to say of any value to reporters who will go through the motions of calling them. The same will be true of any investors who call Apple’s investor relations department.
  • Apple’s release isn’t a release at all but rather an email from Steve Jobs to Apple employees, addressed as “Team.”  Its first line reads: “At my request, the board of directors has granted me a medical leave of absence so I can focus on my health. I will continue as CEO and be involved in major strategic decisions for the company.” In his last leave Jobs put a time limit on his recuperation. This one is indefinite. His remaining CEO is sort of like the ailing despot of a country not relinquishing his title while traveling abroad to seek medical treatment. Of course he’s still CEO. As long as his iPhone works wherever he is, Jobs can be involved in “major strategic decisions.”
  • Jobs says he has asked Tim Cook “to be responsible for all of Apple’s day to day operations.” The only interesting word there is “all.” Cook already is responsible for Apple’s day-to-day operations, as Jobs has pointed out before. The completeness of the statement reflects the need for someone to to rule on edicts of every size. “Apple is a country,” notes the same executive who believes Jobs is indispensable. “As such, it needs a leader.”
  • Jobs closes by saying he loves Apple, will be back as soon as he can, and requesting respect for his family’s privacy, which of course won’t be granted because international celebrities who use their fame to sell their products get only whatever privacy they are able to scrounge for themselves.

So what happens next? If Jobs returns to work this will be merely another blip for Apple. Assuming the worst, however, the company will glide along for some period of time, and the world will learn just how talented Apple’s senior management team is. It’s a cohesive group that has been together for years and already responds well to Cook’s leadership. (My 2008 profile of Cook, published before the last Jobs leave of absence, details how Cook is the yin to Jobs’s yang, a sea of calm next to the tempest of Jobs.)

After that time, however, the deluge. Other than Cook, who so clearly isn’t anything like Jobs, what outsider would be so foolish as to accept the jobs of replacing an icon? And what insider could hope to command the respect and fear that Jobs currently does?

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