I've always said that the future of Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) depends on how Steve Jobs is doing, or how the company fills his enormous shoes when he leaves. Well, here's our chance to see how smoothly the business will run without its charismatic leader. The turtlenecked one is taking a six-month break from running the show due to health issues.
Fellow Fool Tim Beyers is thinking hard about Steve's health, so I won't go there. I'm more interested in the business impact of this unexpected vacation.
Meet the new boss, not the same as the old boss
COO Tim Cook is taking the rudder again, just like he did when Steve had his cancer operation nearly five years ago. Apple didn't crash and burn in 2004, but Cook's tenure is many times longer this time. In the event that this nice, long break really is the end for Jobs, Tim is the odds-on favorite to become Jobs 2.0. Though both guys are highly driven workaholics, they're otherwise about as similar as apples and kumquats.
An engineering degree from Auburn was followed by top grades at Duke's prestigious school of business. That's a solid foundation in both technology and business; very suitable for helming a large Silicon Valley firm like Apple. Then Cook spent 12 years at IBM (NYSE: IBM ) running portions of Big Blue's personal computer operations when it still mattered. He was also responsible for managing Compaq's inventory before Carly Fiorina swept that company into Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ ) . Those experiences seem quite relevant to helping MacBooks gain market share on rivals like Dell (Nasdaq: DELL ) and -- sweet irony -- HP.
Mr. Cook sits on Nike's (NYSE: NKE ) board of directors, too. That highly fashion-conscious company should keep him in touch with style trends if Apple ever runs out of in-house fashionistas. (Yeah, right.)
The measure of a man
So, the business pedigree is impeccable. According to a report from The Wall Street Journal on Cook's leadership, Apple under Cook should look and feel quite different from Apple under Jobs. Where "The Steve" is a spontaneous and inspiring hothead, insiders call Tim "wickedly smart" in a low-key sort of way. Raised and educated in the south, he's said to be a courtly southern gentleman and more likely to stare you down with a smile than to give you a tongue-lashing. Tim takes an analytical tack in Apple's conference calls, heavy on numbers and trend analysis, while Jobs looks down from 30,000 feet and cracks the occasional joke.
That's all fine and dandy -- a management style that many of us would be happy to serve under. But we know next to nothing about Tim's long-range vision or whether he can invent new gadget markets at the drop of a hat like good old Steve does.
How deep is the bench?
Fortunately, he doesn't necessarily have to do any of those things. Jobs will still "remain involved in major strategic decisions" while Cook runs daily operations, and a star-studded board of directors is there for additional long-range guidance. That includes well-respected business leaders like Intuit's (Nasdaq: INTU ) former CEO Bill Campbell and Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) CEO Eric Schmidt, alongside highly opinionated former Vice President Al Gore.
If this brand-name crew can't guide Tim to the occasional gold nugget without Jobs' guidance, $24.5 billion of cash in Apple's coffers says that the company could hire or acquire top talent to fill that need.
What do we do now?
So, Apple won't be the same without Steve Jobs. The next few months will shine a light on how grim or groovy that possible future might be. If you still think that the company will die without its obvious heart and soul, then feel free to sell the stock today, by all means. But with shares selling for 15 times trailing earnings after spending years in the 30s and above, you may want to give Timmy the benefit of the doubt and buy while the market panics. He'd have to mess up pretty badly to derail this money train -- and with that background and healthy long-term support, I don't think that's very likely.