BY KIT EATON

Apple’s CEO is suffering the after-effects of cancer and a liver transplant, and his latest medical leave has the tech world agog over Apple’s immediate plans. So we have to wonder: Can Apple survive a post-Steve Jobs future? We’ve looked at where Apple is right now, where’s it’s going next, thought about how Apple’s competitors have fared in history and tried to imagine what may happen to Apple when Jobs finally relinquishes the big chair.

What is Apple now?

Apple is, whether you’re a fan or a hater, one of the most important technology companies in the world right now–both from a consumer electronics angle, and as a driver for change in the entire technology sphere. Over the last ten years it’s reinvented how people think about digital music, home computing (now chic, versus its ancient geek status), what digital device design can be like, how home entertainment systems can work slickly, how smartphones look and feel, and what it means to have a handheld computer that reacts to touch. That’s a big–and important–list.

Apple’s done this by making bold, decisive decisions about product features and design, departing far from the industry “norms.” It’s done this thanks to a tight-knit team ofdesignershardware and software experts, marketing geniuses and management gurus. This team has one focus: Steve Jobs, whose vision and drive are legendary. All the key decisions that have driven his company have involved him making the ultimate yes or no call–most notably he’s reported to have held off on an iPad-like machine for years and years, until the market and the tech was ready. Just look at how well that’s paid off.

Apple is the most successful it’s ever been, and Jobs is at its core. But Steve Jobs is not Apple, and Apple is not Steve Jobs.

What will Apple do without Steve for the next several months?

Last time Steve took medical leave, Tim Cook held the reins–and got payed over 12 milliondollars for his efforts. Cook managed the company slickly in Steve’s absence, presiding over a suite of hardware and software upgrades of significant scope–including the iPhone 3GS and Snow Leopard Mac OS. We didn’t see “visionary” new product releases, but that had little to do with Cook: Such events take years in planning, prototyping and ultimate execution, and Cook’s time in charge simply coincided with a period where Apple was consolidating and evolving its existing products.

Now Jobs needs R&R again, and Apple’s in another phase of consolidation. The iPad 2 is due imminently–but the iPad 1 already did the tricky paradigm-shattering. The iPhone 5 is due around mid-year and though some expect it to be a complete design re-think, it’s likely that in terms of tech it’ll be an incremental device with better, more clever guts. We’re expecting an evolution in Apple’s signature Mac computers, but these will happen on design decisions that Apple’s already been testing for a few years in the MacBook Air and iPhone (slimmer unibody formats, solid-state drives and so on.)

The biggest thing Apple will reveal this year will probably go unnoticed by much of the public: It’s A5 (A8?) chip which will sit inside the iPhone, iPad and Apple TV will likely be a ARM Cortex A9 dual-core evolution of the Cortex A8 single-core chip that’s inside thecurrent iPad. It’ll set the bar for the industry, so it’s absolutely crucial for Apple. But it’s been in design and development for years–all the key decisions are already made.

In other words, Apple’s set for the rest of 2011, and probably early 2012 already.

What Apple would do in the months after Jobs left

Assuming Jobs recovers well from what some are seeing as a normal lull caused by the trauma his body’s suffered, he’ll be back at Apple in 2011. But ultimately he’ll have to go, whether he falls too ill, whether he decides to refocus his energies on his family as he gets older, or whether Apple’s board will (in concert with him, and acting with characteristic managed PR slickness) decide it’s time to usher in a new era.

In the immediate aftermath of Jobs’ departure, and no matter who succeeds him as CEO, there will probably be no immediate change of Apple’s fortunes in the marketplace. All the key technological and design decisions for at least a year or two into the future would’ve already been made, and would be in development. No one steering the firm would want to upset the sales momentum the company has patiently built up.

The financial world would react differently, paying acutely critical attention to what Apple’s new management did, but the company’s immediate future would probably be stable.

When Apple’s managers and key talent leave

Then things will change. Soon after Jobs leaves, we imagine numerous high-ranking people inside the firm will find new things to do with their lives too. No matter who replaces Jobs, working for a firm with a revolution-inspiring genius at its core is different to one without such a figure. Some key design or management people would probably leave even if Apple were headed-up by a similarly dynamic new CEO, simply because they got used to working for Steve.

Apple’s new management will then have a two-handed problem: Managing the company’s future technological direction, and recruiting new talent to replace key staff at critical moments in new product design cycles.

What will happen to Apple’s image?

Apple’s image may then change. Assuming a new tight-knit and dynamic team pushed the company forward from the top, it still won’t be Jobs’ company–whatever new products it makes won’t necessarily be the same as Jobs would have chosen.

This could push Apple’s image in one of two directions. It could become even more successful. Jobs isn’t the only genius in the world, and some of his decisions over the last many years have seemed odd–the weird “hobby” status of the Apple TV for one, the war with Adobe over Flash technology as another, along with examples like the bull-headed pursuit of FireWire tech while everyone else chose USB. A scenario wherein a post-Jobs Apple was easily churning out equally fabulous tech is not impossible to imagine.

Or Apple’s sheen could begin to fade, with future products missing their mark and failing to please a hungry public. This could happen because too many critical employees may leave, taking their vision and expertise with them, and Apple’s new management may lack the drive and focus that Jobs has.

This is, perhaps, the most likely scenario: Apple without Jobs is still Apple, but it’s easy to see several missteps taken by the new team, versus the rare errors Apple’s made over the last ten years. For one, Jobs is driven by his inner energy, and the sense of urgency that comes from a serious illness like pancreatic cancer–we can’t imagine the new team feeling that same dynamic urge.

What Apple’s customers would do then

Part of Apple’s success has come from the astonishing mass appeal that surrounds its smooth, desirable consumer electronics. Apple fans have long been privy to the joy of a computer that “just works” (despite the bitterness and hype of the Mac-versus-PC war, this fact is largely true) but the iPod and iPhone demonstrated this to the broader public. Clever marketing, product placement in key TV shows and movies and smart design-choices supported this. As has a succession of newer, cleverer, more impressive products.

If a post-Jobs Apple falters in several decisions, and produces devices that fail to wow Joe Public, the interest in Apple will quickly fade. Joe is fickle, as we all know–Microsoft was once King, now Apple is, and that cycle will go on.

What will happen over several years

Apple is massive enough to roll on, and any new management team will probably be smart enough to let things evolve slowly, not being brave enough to challenge the Jobs design legacy with bold new products. This would be a successful strategy, at first.

But ultimately this doesn’t create dynamism and growth, and Apple would begin to behave like a supertanker–difficult to slow and impossible to turn. Microsoft went there, as didYahoo, and while these once world-leading giants are still incredibly important, it’s hard to argue that they’re pushing the boundaries of technology any more.

If that happens Apple could slowly slip into the same faded-opulence status occupied by some of its current and previous competition, feeling like a technological great that once was, instead of a young, dynamic, world-changer. This would affect how its investors behave, and what kind of talent it can recruit.

To read more news on this, and similar stuff, keep up with updates by following Kit Eaton on Twitter.

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