Facing the wrong question on Jobs' absence from Apple

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

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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.

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