Tim Cook to take Apple CEO spot this year, says analyst

Steve Jobs' medical leave will promote current COO, put Jobs in advisory, chairman roles

Apple COO Tim Cook at Verizon's iPhone 4 launch event in New York. (Image: Brendan McDermid / Reuters) Tim Cook, Apple's current chief operating officer, will be named the company's CEO sometime this year, an analyst predicted today.

On Monday, Cook was again designated as Steve Jobs' stand-in when Jobs announced that he was taking an immediate leave of absence "so I can focus on my health."

Unlike when he set a six-month timetable for returning after a 2009 leave , yesterday Jobs did not mention an end date for his absence, saying only that "[I] hope to be back as soon as I can."

Brian Marshall, an analyst with Gleacher & Co., read that as meaning Jobs would probably not return as CEO.

"Jobs picks his words carefully," said Marshall. "That's why I think this time could be different."

Cook ran Apple during Jobs' earlier medical leaves in 2004 for cancer surgery and in 2009 for a liver transplant . "Because of this recurring [medical] issue, I think Jobs will step down as CEO," said Marshall. According to Marshall, Jobs' should instead serve as the company's strategic advisor and perhaps as its chairman.

Currently, Apple's board does not have a chairman, and instead relies on two co-lead directors: Andrea Jung, the CEO and chairman of Avon Products, and Arthur Levinson, the chairman of Genentech.

Marshall expects Cook to be elevated to CEO sometime during 2011.

"He's proven that he can do the job," said Marshall, noting Cook's performance during the times when he took the reins, and the $5 million bonus the Apple board awarded him last year for that work in 2009. "Cook is the right guy for the job."

Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research, didn't agree with Marshall on Jobs' immediate future at Apple.

"I think he'll be back," said Gottheil. "But this points out that eventually he'll say, 'I don't want to do this anymore.'"

In his message Monday to Apple employees, Jobs said he would "continue as CEO and be involved in major strategic decisions for the company." Jobs said the same in 2009 when he was out for six months.

Gottheil didn't interpret Jobs' words from yesterday in the same way as Marshall. "There's just more uncertainty this time," Gottheil said of Jobs' use of the word "hope" on Monday. "That doesn't mean there's a higher likelihood that he won't return, it's just that he has less information this time. In 2009, he knew how long it would take to recover from [the transplant] surgery."

But like Marshall, Gottheil believes that Cook is the likely CEO when Jobs does vacate the position. "They need someone to balance the forces in design, in engineering, in retail, in marketing," said Gottheil, adding that Jobs has been the arbiter at Apple, and that Cook would be the right choice as the new decision maker.

"With people like [Jonathan] Ive, the CEO doesn't need to be someone with inspiration, but needs to be someone with judgment," said Gottheil. "And Cook is the embodiment of judgment."

Ive is Apple's head of design.

Gottheil also pointed to the $5 million bonus -- which was accompanied by 75,000 restricted shares of Apple stock -- as an indicator that the 50-year-old COO is "first among equals" in the executive ranks below Jobs.

Neither Marshall or Gottheil saw Jobs' possible departure from the CEO position as damaging to Apple, at least not in the short- or mid-term.

"Things are working at Apple, really working," said Gottheil, who expects Apple to announce another record-breaking quarter later Tuesday. "There's no doubt that the next two-plus years are fairly well charted. And remember, Jobs is only a phone call away."

In fact, Gottheil wondered whether Apple will need Jobs down the road.

"It's not even clear if Jobs is the right person to make Apple's next big jump," he said, edging close to heresy in the eyes of Apple devotees. "The company still has not taken the next step on connectivity and the Internet. Maybe Jobs is not right for that challenge."

Or maybe there simply isn't a Next Big Thing from Apple.

"You don't bet the house when the house is valuable," Gottheil said. "Jobs has been the innovator, certainly. He made the jump to Intel, he saw the diminishing returns of the iPod, he saw the smartphone coming, but maybe there isn't a Next Big Thing. Apple doesn't need any more of those tricks to stay very profitable."

Marshall saw it differently.

"The real concern is 10 years out or more," said Marshall. "Jobs is irreplaceable, and he's going to be missed [if he leaves the CEO spot]. But Apple works on a three-year cycle," he said, ticking off the iPhone in 2007 and the iPad in 2010. "They have the next one, which I think will focus on the living room, pretty well mapped out."

By mid-day, Apple's shares had dropped just 1.7%, falling $5.74 to $342.60.

"I'm shocked that it's not down more," said Marshall, who in a note to clients earlier Tuesday had advised them to "get aggressive" in buying shares if the price fell to $300.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@computerworld.com .

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