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Apple Without Steve Jobs

The way Wall Street reacted to recent rumors about Steve Jobs and whether or not he’s seriously ill certainly mirrors the common perception that the company he co-founded can’t possibly succeed without him.

I can surely understand the reason for this common conception, since we all know how bad things were at Apple in the 1990s before he returned to the company. To almost everyone, he’s credited with righting a sinking ship and for everything Apple has done right since then.

I wouldn’t for a moment suggest anything else. But Steve Jobs is not an industrial designer, nor is he an engineer. You can say he’s a master salesman, and you’d probably be right. You can also say that he has a confrontational management style, while no doubt jarring to one’s sensibilities if you don’t like to be constantly challenged, which happens to succeed within Apple’s specific corporate environment.

However, he couldn’t do a single thing without a talented staff of thousands of people who are prepared to take his vision to its ultimate conclusion, wherever it may lead. In interviews, Jobs has certainly done what he can to foster this impression, saying that people who can’t accept his way of doing things are welcome to leave.

Many of his most loyal staffers have been with him for years, some were even part of the NeXT team that came along for the ride when that company was acquired by Apple. A few, such as operating system genius Avie Tevanian, have gone on to other pursuits, or are simply content counting the riches they earned working for Jobs.

With his executive team calling the shots, in fact, Jobs was reportedly on vacation when Apple’s quarterly financials were announced this week. At the same time, published reports have it that Jobs is healthy, although he underwent surgery earlier this year to deal with a weight loss problem stemming from his original treatment for pancreatic cancer several years ago. During his WWDC keynote, he was, so Apple PR says, suffering from a “bug” and had, in fact, apparently considered skipping the event as a result.

But that might have invited even more unsavory speculation about his fitness to continue as Apple’s CEO, and no doubt that was one key reason why the show had to go despite the lingering effects of his illness.

More to the point, how many hours does Jobs actually devote to Apple these days anyway? Was their financial situation so unimportant to him that he felt he had the freedom to be somewhere else during the analyst conference? It’s not that he generally participates anyway, though he has in the past.

But certainly his executive team is well-trained, highly skilled, and knows how to toe the company line. They did a fine job delivering tantalizing hints of a forthcoming product transition of major importance, but without a single salient detail in sight. Predictably, the speculation has begun in earnest, and won’t stop until the official product announcement comes, as expected, in the next few weeks.

Returning to Jobs, does he still put in an eight-hour day these days, with occasional nights and weekends close to a product’s introduction, or does he just make a few token appearances to approve final design conceps, fire a few lackeys to continue to foster his fearsome leadership image, and get on with his life?

As a matter of fact, does he even make regular journeys to Disney headquarters, as that company’s largest stockholder, to check in on the progress of their movie projects, particularly those from the Pixar division? What about ABC television, the theme parks and other company holdings? Or does he simply place a few strategic phone calls, on his iPhone of course, and stay away until a board meeting requires his presence?

Of course, such a concept really goes against the widespread impression, fostered by Apple’s spin team naturally, that Jobs remains the hands-on micromanaging executive who has his nose in every nook and cranny of the business and knows what everyone is doing, and whether they’re doing it in accordance with his individualistic vision.

That may, of course, be true. Even if Jobs isn’t present at the Apple campus, he can easily communicate with his iPhone — or whatever successor product Apple has under development right now. I’m sure he also has people who serve as his eyes and ears, so if things aren’t quite moving in the proper direction, he can come over and take the appropriate whip-cracking action to set things right.

In other words, Jobs is definitely not a figurehead the company trots out strictly for meetings with the press and public.

On the other hand, Apple isn’t saying just how often Jobs comes to work these days, or whether he is, in fact, slowly phasing himself out of active participation in the day-to-day events. Maybe he has simply come to feel that his executive team is quite skilled at handling the mundane affairs, and even some of the important issues, without requiring his presence.

If Apple’s board is busy grooming possible successors to Jobs, such a situation would allow them to bloom outside of his shadow, so they can prove their mettle as far as leadership skills are concerned.

Or maybe none of this chatter has any basis in fact. Perhaps his extended holiday during the week when Apple announced quarterly record profits was just the long-delayed vacation he and his family wanted. Even now, he may be preparing to return and devote a typical 40, 60, or 80 hours a week to keep Apple moving in the proper direction, or at least the direction he deems proper.