Can Apple survive without Steve Jobs?

Apple's CEO is taking his third medical leave in six years. Is this finally the end of the Jobs era?

Stop me if you've heard this one: Steve Jobs is taking another medical leave from Apple.

That news spread across the InterWebs like butter on a hotplate yesterday, thanks to a six-sentence email distributed to Apple employees from the desk of Steve Jobs himself.

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By my unofficial count some 17,352 blogs and news sites were repeating the same three bits of information:

1. Jobs was taking an indefinite leave, his third since an operation for pancreatic cancer in 2004;

2. COO Tim Cook would be handling daily operations, as he did during Jobs' previous leaves;

3. Steve would still be involved in all the important decisions.

And that's it. Guess this blog post makes it 17,353.

Aside from that, the announcement leaves more questions than answers, as IDG News' Juan Carlos Perez and 17,000 other reporter/bloggers noted.

The New York Times managed to add a scosh more information, namely that liver transplant recipients go through frequent up and down cycles, and Jobs has been in a down cycle of late, according to Apple sources who know better than to go on the record with the Times. Per the Times, Jobs has only been coming into Apple offices a couple of times a week.

My guess, based on that news and the timing of the Apple announcement -- early on a federal holiday when the U.S. stock markets are closed, the day before Apple is set to announce big earnings -- is that the "medical leave" is already well under way. Apple is acknowledging what Jobs has been doing (resting, weighing in for the big decisions) for some time now, but wanted to get ahead of any leaks that would cause a much bigger maelstrom, and to do it in a way that would minimize the impact on its share price. Just a hunch.

The good news is that, according to the NYT, such down periods are generally temporary, not an indication that the transplant is failing. The story also included the morbid statistic that one out of five transplant recipients die within the first three years. (Or to look at the bright side, the 55-year-old Jobs has an 80 percent shot at living into his 60s, at least.)

The rest of the world spent much of yesterday parsing every syllable of that 112-word email, hunting for clues, speculating what Apple (and the world) would be without Jobs, and generally trying to fill the void left by both that terse email and the man himself.

I've spent the last day trying to come up with another CEO who has left as large a mark on a company and the world around him, and I can't. Jack Welch is considered by many the model CEO, but his impact outside of GE is marginal (unless you consider him the inspiration for Alec Baldwin's "Jack Donaghy" on 30 Rock). Ford still churns out cars -- and these days some pretty innovative ones -- decades after Henry parked his last Model A. Disney stumbled after Walt's death, but it recovered, more or less. KFC original recipe still tastes the same 30 years after Col. Harland Sanders went onto the great chicken ranch in the sky.

On the other hand, Jobs' work is largely done. Almost single-handedly, he and Apple have brought us into the second era of personal computing -- the cloud-based, touch-driven, app-happy, go-anywhere device.

Sure, plenty of people are playing in this space, and some of them got there before Apple. Just like there were plenty of MP3 players before the iPod. But it was the iPhone and then the iPad that created a market for these things and inspired hundreds of imitators. The reason? Jobs' insistence on giving people what they really want: simple, intuitive products that are fun to use.

That's something Microsoft has never understood. That, and the fact that Jobs has never been afraid to say "no, that's not ready yet," despite millions invested in research and development. That's what Apple will miss when Jobs finally leaves for good.

Yes, Jobs has also been a lightning rod for criticism, this blog included. But the industry is poorer for his absence. Does he have another iPad in him? I doubt it. But I'd like to find out.

Will Apple stumble without Jobs? E-mail me:

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Robert X. Cringely

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