At Long Last, The Apple Succession Plan Swings Into Action

It’s a day pretty much everyone knew was coming, and a day that everyone at Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) was dreading: the company’s iconic CEO, Steve Jobs, has decided to step down in the face of continuing health problems. It’s not at all surprising that COO Tim Cook would step into the vacated position, but the remainder of Apple’s closely held succession plan is about to be finally exposed to the public.

Ever since Jobs first underwent treatment for pancreatic cancer in 2004, Apple has faced numerous calls from investors, corporate governance experts, and media wags to disclose the plan it acknowledged it had devised for succeeding Jobs at the company. Apple resisted every time, assuring everyone that it had a plan in place for that day but exercising its trademark code of silence regarding such matters.

With a letter to Apple employees and directors Wednesday, Jobs put that plan into action. But Apple has not said exactly how the plan will be implemented below Cook’s level, and such decisions will be key to ensuring that Apple can continue its current run of strong product design and relentless execution. While Apple probably has several projects well underway for future products, at some point the remaining executives will have to swim on their own.

Cook is widely considered to be the man who makes sure the trains run on time at Apple. (More on Cook from my colleague Ingrid Lunden here.) The rest of Apple’s key leaders reported directly to Jobs and any changes in their duties as a result of the succession plan could have far-reaching effects.

Key members include:

Jony Ive: Considered the keeper of Jobs’ design philosophies, Ive could become the decider when it comes to refining the final pieces of new Apple products, a role exclusively reserved for Jobs until now.

Scott Forstall: Forstall is in charge of iOS, the key to Apple’s future and the software that is responsible for the strong financial position in which the company finds itself after Jobs’ departure.

Bob Mansfield: Hardware engineering for the Mac is Mansfield’s specialty, but he has also been involved in the production of the iPad as well as the team making chips for Apple’s devices.

Phil Schiller: Apple’s marketing head is best known for playing the foil during Jobs’ presentations over the years, but has also led some of the company’s trademark keynote presentations himself.

The interest will be in how Jobs and Cook decided to structure Apple in Jobs’ absence. Such as, whether or not the company names a COO to take on Cook’s role (senior vice president of operations Jeff Williams might be tapped for that position, but he’s relatively new to the inner circle of Apple leaders). Or, who has the ultimate responsibility to say “no” to a proposal: obviously, Cook is now the man in charge but we don’t know how he might rule on key design-related decisions.

Apple’s organizational structure was given perhaps its most thorough airing ever in an article published by Fortune earlier this year. One key passage revealed that Jobs has been concentrating on making sure his legacy and methodologies survive at the company following his departure.

“His mission: to turn the traits that people most closely associate with Jobs–the attention to detail, the secrecy, the constant feedback–into processes that can ensure Apple’s excellence far into the future,” wrote Adam Lashinsky, Fortune’s senior editor at large.

Apple’s succession plan was likely designed with that mission in mind. A company so famous for secrecy is not likely to shed too much light on how roles are being redefined following Jobs’ departure, but the clues will be there, and their impact on the most influential company in the tech industry will be closely scrutinized.