What will Apple under CEO Tim Cook look like?

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Tim Cook, Apple CEOIt’s a question many in tech have pondered since Steve Jobs’ health issues cropped up several years ago: What would happen to Apple without Steve Jobs as CEO? Now we have to ponder the question for real, as the iconic businessman and CEO of Apple just made his previous temporary medical leave permanent. He resigned as CEO of the company he co-founded and brought back from near bankruptcy on Wednesday. In his resignation letter to shareholders, Jobs recommended his longtime COO as his permanent replacement: “As far as my successor goes, I strongly recommend that we execute our succession plan and name Tim Cook as CEO of Apple.”

Though Jobs steps out of his role as CEO, he’ll remain as chairman of the board, Apple has confirmed. Though markets will likely react when they reopen Thursday morning — having already dipped about five percentage points Wednesday after market close — having Cook in the executive office isn’t a change likely to be felt immediately in terms of the way Apple does business and the types of products it makes. That’s because Cook and Jobs are said to be very much of the same mind in their philosophy of how to run the world’s most valuable technology company.

What can we expect from Cook?

The choice of Cook is no surprise. Though Apple hadn’t made its succession plans public, it’s been widely assumed that Cook would assume the role of CEO. He’s been a senior VP at Apple since 1995 and COO since 2005, and Jobs has entrusted him with the title of official acting CEO twice before. He’s also the man credited with turning around Apple’s manufacturing process and improving its inventory and margins, which are the envy of the industry.

When called upon during previous Jobs’ absences, Cook has been a calming, familiar voice on the company’s earnings calls for investors. That’s because he has overseen some of the most successful quarters in Apple history.

During his most recent six-month-long temporary CEO role, beginning in January, Apple has:

Despite Cook’s clear ability to lead the company, he won’t be the public face of Apple in the way Jobs as CEO has become. Cook is known for being an extremely private person, and he’s not known to possess Jobs’ salesman qualities. So will we see Cook emceeing Apple events in the same style and manner as Jobs? Very likely not. We have seen Cook on stage at Apple press events, but this role will likely be shared, as it has been recently during Jobs’ absences, among Cook and other Apple executives like marketing chief Phil Schiller, head of iOS Scott Forstall, and hardware VP Bob Mansfield.

Looking ahead

How will Apple look on an everyday basis? Probably the same. Cook will continue to oversee very much business as usual. There will very likely be a new iPhone in the next several months. Early next year, there will very likely be an iPad 3. And at some point in the next year, the company will also refresh its MacBook lineup, iPods, and perhaps Apple TV too for good measure.

In other words, the show will go on. Products will be released, and people will continue to buy them. Jobs not being CEO isn’t going to scare people off from the products Apple is making and the ecosystem he’s built while heading his company.

Longer term

Looking further ahead, several years down the road, is where Apple’s future is less predictable. Jobs is known for his demanding management style that has a particular vision for products. Cook, meanwhile, is a numbers guy, and hasn’t yet demonstrated — at least publicly — that he’s a creative force. That won’t really be necessary while Jobs’ product design guru VP Jonathan Ive remains at Apple. So don’t look for Cook to take on that same role as Jobs in regard to influence on design choices.

Where Jobs’ position in the driver’s seat of the company will be missed most is anticipating the gadgets consumers will want. Jobs was often able to do this even well before consumers themselves (see: iPad launch). It’s not clear that Cook possesses that same intrinsic ability. Keeping products moving through the pipeline and managing the day-to-day operations running a $350 billion dollar company, yes. Spending time pondering the “intersection of liberal arts and technology”? Probably not.

Still, Jobs has already been elected chairman of the company. That means his authoritative influence is going to continue to be felt as long as he chooses.

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