Even if the company has been reluctant to discuss it and outsiders have a hard time imagining it, it's clear Apple has been preparing for a day when Steve Jobs would no longer be chief executive.
Since rejoining the company as part of Apple's acquisition of NeXT in 1996, Jobs has played a pivotal role in its turnaround from a company with an army of clone computers on the brink of bankruptcy to the second-most valuable in the world with gadgets people wait outside stores days to get. He's also been the company's chief spokesperson at the introduction of products, something that is expected to change as Jobs transitions to a diminished role as the company's chairman of the board.
Perhaps the most important role of all though, has been as decision and taste maker for the company, something Jobs is famous for and is likely to continue to have a strong part in going forward. Jobs' replacement, Tim Cook, has certainly proven he can run the company's operations in his absence on three separate occasions, but can the company continue to out-step competitors without Jobs at the helm?
One of the first places to look will be who replaces Cook as Apple's chief operating officer. Apple noted in its announcement today that Cook's move up into the CEO spot is part of the implementation of the company's succession plan.
That very plan became the intense interest of a group of Apple shareholders earlier this year, who asked the company to reveal its plans for replacing Jobs. It was a request Apple rallied against, saying such a revelation would give competitors an "unfair advantage" by publicizing the company's confidential objectives and plans. The motion ended up being rejected at the company's annual shareholders meeting in late February.
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Apple has not announced who will take over the COO spot, but one consideration is Jeff Williams, who was promoted to senior vice president of operations for the company last July. A 2008 profile of Cook in Fortune noted that Williams, who has been with Apple since 1998, is part of a "tight-knit team" that Cook's worked with since joining the company.
Culturally, one of the other big what-ifs is whether Jobs' stepping down sets off the departures of other key executives.
The most recent high-level departure was retail chief Ron Johnson, who announced plans to leave the company to become J.C. Penney's CEO in June. Apple's reportedly been making use of the services of search firm Egon Zehnder International to find Johnson's replacement.
Months before Johnson's announcement, there was the departure of Bertrand Serlet, who had been Apple's senior vice president of Mac software engineering. Serlet joined Apple in 1997, following the company's acquisition of NeXT, where he had been with Jobs.
Rumors swirled earlier this year that Apple's design chief Jonathan Ive was contemplating a departure from Apple to relocate to the U.K. following the completion of a three-year stock deal. Under Ive's direction, Apple's put out a list of iconic products including the iMac, iPod, iPhone, and iPad.
The story goes that Ive's big break came during a Jobs-led re-evaluation of the company following his anointment as CEO in 1997. Jobs took one look at a number of prototypes Ives had come up with and elevated his status as a result. The rest is history, with Apple shrinking, slimming, and re-thinking its gadgets at a non-stop pace.
One more thing
One of the remaining questions is who will take the reins for Apple at its iconic product announcements and events. For years Jobs has been the front man at the company's product introductions, acting as an emcee to pull out key managers and executives to step out onto the stage and pitch Apple's latest wares, be it products or new ideas. Jobs has also made a much-expected habit of saving the big announcement until the very end of those presentations, leading the audience on by saying there's just "one more thing."
With Jobs on leave in recent years, that responsibility has fallen on longtime Apple veteran Phil Schiller, the company's senior vice president of worldwide product marketing. But other personalities have emerged, including Scott Forstall, Apple's senior vice president of iOS software. Forstall's role has become increasingly important as the iOS software makes its way into more products, and makes up for more of the company's revenues. The man has plenty of charisma and showmanship, though his role has been limited to that product line.
The first place we're likely to see the change is with the company's unveiling of the next iPhone. Now expected to be released in October alongside new iterations of the iPod, it's a good guess it will be the company's first event with Cook at the helm. What comes after that only Apple knows.