It's been 15 years since Steve Jobs returned to the company he founded, and about one financial quarter has passed since he died. Talk of Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL) long-term future has been at a fever pitch ever since Jobs stepped down in August, with two distinct camps emerging. The loyalists project massive growth and eye-popping numbers as far as the eye can see. Skeptics point to each new record-breaking quarter as a summit never to be surpassed again.

My view (which I'm sure many will dispute) lies somewhere in between. Apple's history shows that even average management can maintain a cutting-edge company for years without visionary leadership. But the technological advancements to come will be far more sophisticated and arrive more rapidly than they have in the past. Can anyone less than a visionary keep ahead of the rising curve?

Not quite lost in the wilderness
Apple wasn't cast adrift after forcing Jobs out in 1985. Under John Sculley, it simply failed to capitalize on longer-term trends in the computer industry. The company did well for some time, though. Despite the rise of IBM (NYSE: IBM) clone PCs, Apple continued to increase its computer sales into the '90s. At one point, Apple briefly pulled ahead of Big Blue to become the largest computer manufacturer in the world. It didn't last.

Apple hardly lacked for innovation during the Sculley period, either. Before his ouster, the company released one of the first commercially successful laptops, the PowerBook. Sculley was also instrumental in pushing development of the Newton, the predecessor to today's iPhones and iPads.

The company had multiple opportunities to license its Mac operating system before Microsoft's (Nasdaq: MSFT) Windows 3.1 took over, and it was even in talks to merge with several companies before finally acquiring NeXT. Had any number of situations turned out differently, Steve Jobs might have never been brought back to the fold, and Apple might have been just another also-ran computer maker.

Both sides of the coin
As the world's largest company by market cap, Apple would seem unlikely to double again. Its innovative position -- supported by a huge cash pile -- also makes it hard to imagine a steep drop. But major growth and financial distress both occurred in the years after Jobs was forced out, so it's worth thinking about how either scenario might come to pass now that his absence is permanent.

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Source: Yahoo! Finance.

Apple 4.0: the rise
I don't think it's possible for Apple's stock to grow as much as it did in the early Sculley years (to say nothing of the past decade), but the company's made a sport out of trouncing the skeptics. Doubling its world-leading market cap is highly optimistic, but the idea can't be dismissed out of hand. I'd consider it to be the extreme bull case for Apple.

Apple could wind up with almost $200 billion in the bank after doubling again, unless Tim Cook finally decides to let the dividends flow. One executive has said that "the purpose of accumulating so much cash on our balance sheet was to demonstrate that Apple has the financial resources to pursue alternative technologies [and potentially acquire other companies]." That was John Sculley, back in 1986.

Apple could sell more than 180 million iPhones each year, almost enough for everyone in the United States over age of 21. Apple could also become the first retailer to sell five figures' ($11,000) worth of product for every square foot of its retail stores.

This assumes that the global smartphone market continues its exponential growth, that no other company will unveil compelling alternatives, and that Apple's margins will never be squeezed by hungrier competitors scrambling for market share. Smartphones may be replaced by form factors Apple hasn't envisioned, and Apple's lost out to competitors with more open platforms in the past.

Apple 4.0: the fall
There's no guarantee that the next five years won't play out more similarly to the '90s than the '80s. Apple's market share is far from locked up, despite its current popularity. Apple's iPhone sales last year were about 9 times what they were in 2008, but Sculley oversaw similar growth, from 300,000 Macs in 1984 to more than 3 million in 1989. Of course, Tim Cook's Apple has a major supply-chain advantage over Sculley's, so the comparison is hardly identical. Apple could maintain profitability with much fewer sales -- but all present arguments for continued stock appreciation must hinge on the ever-growing global demand for iStuff. Muddling along won't cut it.

A hundred million Windows phones could flood the market in the next few years, luring consumers away with low price points and high functionality. Other tablets could make the "Windows 3.1 leap" that caused consumers to notice Apple's lower-cost competition years ago. Public outrage at Foxconn labor practices could lead to a consumer exodus.

Apple is in a much stronger place than it was in the '80s, both on the balance sheet and in the product pipeline. But Research in Motion (Nasdaq: RIMM) and Nokia (NYSE: NOK) can attest to the uselessness of today's cash and technology in meeting tomorrow's threats. Nokia's hoard is now worth almost half its market cap, and RIM's name was once synonymous with smartphones. You won't find anyone calling RIM or Nokia execs visionaries today. I've yet to hear that label applied to Apple's current leadership team either, except in an anticipatory fashion.

One more thing ...
Ten years ago, the BlackBerry was one of the hottest phones around. The iPhone came out five years later, and RIM never recovered. Every new technology tends to take less time to reach wide adoption, so the smartphone era might not last as long as we think. Apple may not be able to rely on newer iPhone and iPad models for another five years before someone else's big idea steals the company's thunder.

I think Apple's position is secured for the next two or three years, but beyond that horizon, things simply can't be anticipated by outsiders. Don't fall into the trap of believing that today's technology will carry Apple into tomorrow. Even John Sculley recognized that innovative new devices were the key to the future -- but his big idea turned out to be too much, too soon.

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