Apple: One year under Tim Cook

August 24, 2012, 11:53 AM UTC

FORTUNE — It shouldn’t have felt like a surprise, but it did, when the news broke a year ago today that Steve Jobs was stepping down as CEO of Apple. He was becoming chairman of the board, a previously unfilled position, Apple announced. Jobs would remain involved with the company, a guiding light rather than a hands-on taskmaster, we were led to believe. Tim Cook, the strong-but-silent chief operating officer, already had been running most of Apple as Jobs’s health declined. So not much would change.

That assessment, though wrong in one key respect, turned out to be largely true. Jobs, of course, died six weeks later. A global outpouring of grief, a heart-tugging employee celebration and an international best-selling (and not altogether flattering) biography heralded his passing. Yet Apple under the CEO Jobs hand-picked to succeed him has been the very definition of staying the course. The company’s product introductions during the year have been incremental, not revolutionary. (The iPhone 4S and a “new,” third-generation iPad hardly constitute putting a dent in the universe.) Senior management has been largely stable. Profits have continued to soar. Apple’s (AAPL) infamously tight-lipped operation has continued apace — despite a torrent of criticism over some of its practices, notably in The New York Times.

In short, Apple by and large has continued to be Apple. Make no mistake, there have been changes. Apple now pays a dividend. There is a vague sense that the company has become more professional and therefore less magical. With the scrutiny of being the world’s most valuable company come scratches on the shiny veneer.

MORE: 11 features Apple’s TV must have

The challenge is what to make of the changes. Apple is so thoroughly analyzed that it becomes difficult to know what constitutes real change and what is background noise. Advertising snobs said Steve Jobs never would have approved the cheesy and demeaning “Genius” ads Apple ran during the London Olympics. A sign of the apocalypse? Maybe. But probably not. It has become fashionable to say a “long time” has passed since Apple released a mind-blowing product. Well, the gap between the iPhone in 2007 and the iPad in 2010 was three years. Apple’s TV effort, whatever it’s going to be, has some time left.

Wall Street, hardly a model of clear thinking of late, certainly doesn’t know what to make of the Tim Cook era. Apple’s stock closed at $374 per share the day Jobs resigned. It was trading near $600 in late July, when Apple reported a disappointing quarter, sending the shares to $570. With no real news since, investors have decided the situation isn’t so glum after all. Apple’s stock closed Thursday at $662.63. That’s an increase of 77% — or more than $270 billion in market capitalization — in the year Cook has been CEO. Amazingly, shares of Apple remain inexpensive by any normal standards at a multiple of 15 times Wall Street’s estimates of current-year earnings.

While Cook wins high marks from investors and generally favorable reviews from employees and partners, the conventional wisdom is that the current success of Apple continues to be attributable to the plans put in place by Steve Jobs. Soon enough, though, we’ll be able to start judging on their own merits Cook and the team of senior managers he has largely held together. (Retail chief Ron Johnson told Jobs he was leaving for J.C. Penney (JCP), and Cook filled the spot with European retailing executive John Browett. Hardware boss Bob Mansfield recently announced his retirement and is being replaced by a lieutenant.)

MORE: How Apple works: Inside the world’s biggest startup

Apple, despite its annuity-like Macintosh division, is a hits-driven business. To grow at its massive scale it needs to continue to wow customers. Incrementalism won’t cut it for long, and everyone expects Tim Cook to unveil brand-new gadgets as soon as next month. What difference does a year make? With Apple after Steve Jobs, it’s probably not enough time to tell.

Adam Lashinsky’s best-selling book, Inside Apple, was released in January.

[cnnmoney-video vid=/video/technology/2012/07/25/t-apple-tv-next-few-years.fortune]