Can Apple thrive without Steve Jobs at the helm?

With Apple's iconic CEO taking another medical leave, is the company's incredible recent growth likely to slow down or grind to a halt?

With Steve Jobs once again taking a medical leave from his responsibilities at Apple, the questions that surrounded his last leave (and the months leading up to it, when public appearances made it clear the CEO was in ill heath) are swirling again. Ironically, the news comes just after Central Laborers' Pension Fund, which includes over 11,000 share of Apple stock as part of its portfolio, attempted to force the company to develop a CEO succession plan.

The biggest questions are obvious. What is Jobs' health status? When will he be able to return? Can the company maintain its growth in recent years without Jobs at the helm?

Not being a doctor, I won't even begin to speculate on the man's health. I think even most doctors would be hesitant to do so with more information. Perhaps, more importantly, any individual and his/her family going through a serious health crisis deserves some privacy (even if that individual is the CEO of one of the world's most highly valued companies).

So, I'll stick to the remaining question – is Jobs an irreplaceable fixture at Apple?

There's no way anyone who's followed Apple before and after Jobs returned to the company in 1997 could say no. The man redefined more than Apple's product lineup. He restructured almost the entire company, had a major impact on its priorities and culture, and used his talents as a master salesman to generate more media buzz around its announcements than any other technology executive.

Apple simply would never have become the company that it is today if it hadn't been for Apple's 1997 acquisition of NeXT and the return of one of its founders.

That doesn't mean that the company is now completely unprepared to lose Jobs. Chief operations officer Tim Cook did an excellent job running the company during Steve's last medical leave in 2009. The company didn't lose pace with any major products. Fear may have dropped the stock price a bit during that time, but Apple continued on just fine.

It's also worth noting that while Cook would be the most likely choice to replace Jobs as CEO should it come to that, Apple has a strong cadre of executives that have been as vital to the company's success over the past decade at least as much as Jobs himself (although many don't have the spotlight shine on them so much). Jonathan Ives, for example, is the genius behind all of Apple's industrial design, without which we wouldn't have the iconic iMac, unibody MacBooks, or the iPhone and iPad. Another example is Phil Schiller, Apple's senior VP of worldwide product marketing who usually plays second fiddle during Steve's masterful presentations, but is also quite capable as a marketing force in his own right.

With a CEO who has experienced serious or critical health problems in the past, I have no doubt that Apple's executive team and board already have a plan in place if Jobs were to be completely incapacitated for any length of time (or to die). Like many of its future plans, however, I'm sure the company will never it make that plan public except on the day it needs to be implemented.

Most importantly, however, is that Jobs has left an indelible mark on Apple's corporate culture. The success of the company under his leadership has no doubt made that mark deeper and more vivid when it comes to defining the company's priorities, values, and both short and long term strategies.

So, Jobs' medical leave will make investors nervous. It will make Apple fans everywhere worry a bit. It will make pundits like myself repeatedly as the questions I outlined at the beginning of this post. That said, I don't think it means Apple is going to be slowed down in the least.

What do you think? Can Apple continue without Jobs? Who do you think should succeed him if it comes to that? Should Apple make any plans for dealing with his absence public? Let us know what you think in the comments.

Ryan Faas writes about personal technology for ITworld. Learn more about Faas' published works and training and consulting services at www.ryanfaas.com. Follow him on Twitter @ryanfaas.

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