Without Steve Jobs, Apple is ‘like other companies’

If investors were as visionary as Steve Jobs has proved to be during his 35 years of tech wizardry, they might be able to figure out whether Apple can still thrive if its founder and CEO doesn’t return from his indefinite medical leave.

But Jobs’ prescience is a rarity, which is why doubt and anxiety will probably hang over the company until his fate is clearer.

The iPod-iPhone-iPad revolution that Jobs unleashed over the past decade should ensure that Apple’s revenue and earnings keep growing for at least the next two to three years, according to analysts. What’s more, Jobs has assembled and trained a savvy, hard-driving management team that should be capable of following his road map for the company.

The question is whether Apple can remain a step ahead and develop products that reshape technology, media and pop culture if Jobs isn’t around to divine the next big thing.

Without Jobs, “Apple is a lot more like other companies. Its extraordinariness fades,” says technology analyst Roger Kay of Endpoint Technologies Associates.

Apple Inc. announced Monday that Jobs, who co-founded the company in 1976, would take an indefinite medical leave for unspecified problems. The leave could be related to his previous bout with pancreatic cancer or his 2009 liver transplant.

For now, investors appear to be hoping for the best. Apple stock fell $7.83, a little more than 2 percent, to close Tuesday at $340.65. It recovered more than half of that loss after the closing bell after reporting strong earnings.

For the regular trading day, Apple lost $7 billion in market value, although most analysts believe Jobs’ leadership and presence is worth much more to the company.

Jobs’ value is difficult to gauge because of the sheer force of his personality, said Robert Sutton, a professor of management science at Stanford University who has studied Jobs and Apple. “Anyone who thinks they can estimate that is probably lying,” Sutton says.

Stock market analyst Brian Marshall of investment bank Gleacher & Co. suspects that people still hope Jobs will return to the CEO job that he has held since 1997. Since then, Jobs has orchestrated a turnaround that increased Apple’s market value by 100 times.

Marshall and other analysts aren’t optimistic that Jobs will resume his CEO duties, partly because he did not set a timetable for his return. Before he got the new liver, Jobs took a leave of absence from January through June 2009.

Tough to gauge

It’s tough to gauge Jobs’ current health problems because he has said so little about his past ones. He had a tumor removed in 2004 — a rare and very treatable form of pancreatic cancer — but never said whether it had spread to lymph nodes, nor how extensive his surgery was.

“We don’t really know how much of his pancreas was removed. He may just have a remnant,” and that may be causing continued digestive difficulties, said Dr. Charles R. Thomas of Ohio State University’s Knight Cancer Institute.

Dr. Jennifer Obel, a spokeswoman for the American Society of Clinical Oncology and a cancer specialist at Northshore University Health System in suburban Chicago, said the prognosis is good for those with pancreatic tumors like the one Jobs had, even if the tumors spread.

“He’s done extremely well living with this disease for many years,” she said. “I wouldn’t assume anything until he has released more information.”

Apple declined to comment further Tuesday on Jobs’ health.

Apple barely missed a beat the last time Jobs was gone, and its stock climbed more than 60 percent as sales of the iPhone and Mac computers surged, even as the recession dragged on. That’s a testament to Apple’s chief operating officer, Tim Cook, who will be in charge while Jobs is away once again.

In a Tuesday conference call to discuss Apple’s earnings, Cook predicted Apple will still shine.

“Apple is doing its best work ever,” Cook said. “We are all very happy with the product pipeline, and the team here has an unparalleled breadth and depth of talent and a culture of innovation that Steve has driven in the company. Excellence has become a habit.”

A deep bench

Cook has pretty much the same management team supporting him this time. The key players besides Cook include Jonathan Ive, who oversees the elegant design of Apple’s products; Ron Johnson, who runs Apple’s stores; Philip Schiller, the marketing chief; and Scott Forstall, who supervises the iPhone software.

It’s a bench that investors would like to know better, said Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a professor at the Yale School of Management and an expert on executive leadership.

“You only hear about Santa,” he said, “but it’s time that we hear more about the elves.”

Cook, who has been with Apple since 1998, and Ive, who has been there since 1992, will probably carry the biggest load while Jobs is gone, analysts say.

Partly because his role at Apple attracted so much attention during Jobs’ last medical leave, Cook is better known than Ive. Apple has recognized Cook’s contributions by making him its top-paid executive, with a 2010 compensation package valued at $59.1 million. Jobs limits his annual salary to $1.

But Ive has played a critical role in turning the products that Jobs envisioned into reality, said Leander Kahney, who has written books and a blog about Apple.

Apple’s management team has been working together for so long that all the key executives should have a sense of what Jobs would want. And they may still be in touch with Jobs on key decisions because Jobs said he intends to remain involved in the company’s strategy. Kay said he thinks Jobs may have planned even more in the past year than he usually does because of his shaky health.

The stakes are much higher than during Jobs’ last medical leave. When Jobs left last time, Apple’s market value stood at about $78 billion. It is now $312 billion, behind only Exxon Mobil among U.S. companies. Apple also is facing fiercer competition from Google, which has threatened the iPhone with a rival software system for smart phones and is setting its sights on the iPad in the market for tablet computers.

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