Facing the wrong question on Jobs' absence from Apple

Is he a good CEO? Or just a great product guy?

Steve Jobs was pretty quick to answer the question I asked last week about what Apple would have to do to knock itself off the pedestal it built on top of more than seven-million iPhones, hundreds of thousands of iPads and comparatively wan direct competition from Microsoft over the last few years (except for Windows7).

Not that he knew about it, I'm sure. The announcement this week that Jobs is taking medical leave from Apple, to deal with immune-system issues common with people who have received liver transplants, according to the NYT, he had more important things on his mind.

He has reportedly already backed off his regular work schedule, which caused some problems with Apple's focus and execution during his bout with pancreatic cancer, in 2004, though less so during his liver transplant in 2009.

The question I asked the other day, and the one Apple's board is obviously dealing with, is not how well the company can operate with its guru on the injured-reserve list.

The ability of a company to function efficiently in the absence of its founder is one of the tests of a successful transition from small- to mid-sized business. If just keeping the lights on and the iPads rolling off the line would be a problem without Jobs there cracking the whip, Apple would have gone out of business long ago.

The question is whether it will be able to consistently produce new and compelling products without him at a time when the whole computer business is playing fast-follower on every hot product Apple has.

It's a maxim of any creative business that not all good ideas can come from one person, and that the problem is never a lack of good ideas. The problem is figuring out which of a huge pile are the good ideas and which, among them, are the great ones.

Jobs' talent has always been picking the brilliant from a pile of the simply adequate, then making radical changes in design, manufacturing, distribution and marketing to get the greatest impact out of it.

To engineers that's the ho-hum process that happens after some genius creates a great product. To the rest of us it's the way we find out about a product that could be great, understand why it would be great for us, and get it in our hands with the functions, quality and sex appeal that make a great idea brilliant.

Brilliant products are few and far between. At Apple, Jobs has been able to produce a regular string of them.

With him on leave there's a good chance the also-rans will catch up to Apple and that the flow of innovations that have kept it ahead in the past will languish in committees of risk-averse managers rather than going through the ruthless triage and nitpicking attention that drives co-workers crazy but often makes the end product far better than it could be without a monomaniacal aesthete driving the process.

If Jobs turns out to be a great CEO, the people or processes will already be in place to be sure the innovations continue to flow without interruption.

If he's an egomaniacal control freak who needs to be the only fulcrum on which Apple's creative power can rest, his medical leave and longer if he chooses not to return will be a bad time for investors. It will also be a dull one for geeks hoping for more creative disruption from a company that has delivered consistently on that promise only when Jobs has been the one doing it.

Kevin Fogarty writes about enterprise IT for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @KevinFogarty.

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