Apple is Steve Jobs and Steve Jobs is Apple. The CEO and the company are one and the same, so when Jobs takes a six-month leave of absence people naturally get a bit jumpy. In December, Apple announced that Jobs would not be giving his usual evangelical keynote address at the annual Macworld geek-fest. Apple said it was because 2009 would be the last year it exhibited, but observers suspected that the company was hiding something. Its share price dropped. A few weeks later, Jobs, who, at 53, has been looking increasingly gaunt, said he was taking six months off to deal with a 'hormone imbalance'. Despite assurances to the contrary, many speculated that Jobs' ill-health was linked to his previous brush with pancreatic cancer, for which he was operated on successfully in 2004. Their concern was for the long-term future of the business. Who would succeed the world's most unsucceedable CEO?
In January, Jobs explained: 'In order to take myself out of the limelight and focus on my health, and to allow everyone at Apple to focus on delivering extraordinary products, I have decided to take a medical leave of absence until the end of June.' Apple also had a storming Christmas. Sales of its iPods and iPhones enabled the company to surpass $10bn in quarterly revenues for the first time.
The straight talk
Despite the conjecture, Apple should function well in the short term - it's the long-term succession plans that have people worried. Professor John Coffee at Columbia Law School told the FT: 'You have to have a process in place now that you have an ill CEO. In circumstances like this, you can't assume he will get better.' But how do you replace such an iconic CEO? Tim Cook, Apple's COO, is now interim chief exec. His flair for getting things done has been a perfect complement to Jobs' creativity and talent for thinking big. Cook is Jobs' most likely replacement, but he perhaps lacks Jobs' all-important spark - more Dr Spock than Captain Kirk.
Apple needs to firm up plans for a post-Jobs business. It has proved itself a phoenix, rising from the ashes to become a phenomenal success. But Jobs' talent and way of doing things is unique, and without a feeling of complete confidence in the business, investors, shareholders and the markets will continue to fret. After all, Apple's track record of surviving without Jobs is poor: his presence touches every part of the business. Now must be the time for Apple to think differently.