The two questions on the mind of anyone who follows Apple are "When is Steve coming back?" and "What happens if he doesn't?"
Yet on the earnings call with financial analysts today, no one asked any direct question aboutor a possible future without him. However, Apple COO Tim Cook--the company's de facto leader in Jobs' absence--anticipated both questions.
He turned his response to an analyst's question about Apple's timeline for planning future products into an subtle assurance that Apple is a well-run company at the top of its game.
"I will tell you, in my view, Apple is doing its best work ever. We're very heavy with product pipeline. The team here has an unparalleled depth and breadth with talent and a culture of innovation that Steve has driven in the company," said Cook. "Excellence has become a habit. We feel very confident in the future of the company."
Not that anyone needed to be reassured today that Apple is a well-run company. The numbers speak for themselves: Apple has been turning in record quarters in a string running back almost two years. Today Apple reported its highest revenue and profits ever, as well as its most iPhone sales ever (16.2 million), iPads (7.3 million), and Mac computers (4.1 million). The company has $60 billion in cash reserves, its retail stores posted their highest total of visitors ever (75 million people), and sales via iTunes are through the roof.
But Jobs is viewed as the heart and soul of Apple and absolutely critical to its success by many investors. The company performed very well in his last absence between January and June 2009, but this time around there is no set date for Jobs' return, if at all. That helps explain Apple going out of its way to drive home the point that Jobs remains involved in all major decisions and company strategy.
As usual, the earnings press release today contained a quote from Jobs praising the work Apple did during the quarter and pointing to the "exciting" future products Apple has planned for 2011. And in the filing with the SEC notifying them of Jobs' medical leave, Apple highlighted Jobs' plan to stay involved in big-picture concerns.
Cook spent some time talking about the future of their specific business units too, emphasizing the room Apple has to grow and take business from its competitors in the years ahead.
"We've done outstanding in our Mac business, but we still have a relatively low share of a very large PC market," he said, adding, "There's enormous opportunity (to grow) there."
The same, he said, is true of the smartphone market, where "We have relatively low show share in the handset market." Symbian OS-based phones are the most popular worldwide, with a 37 percent share as of the third quarter of 2010, according to Gartner. Android phones account for 25 percent, and Apple's iOS 17 percent.
When it comes to the iPad, Cook sounds most hopeful, likely because there is so little current competition in the space and because Apple has such a sizable head-start over the deluge of Android tablets set to arrive this year.
Cook dismissed the current crop of Android tablets for sale as "bizarre," "scaled-up smartphones" and models announced recently at CES as mostly "vapor." He emphasized that Apple is "not sitting still," which is obviously a reference to the anticipated iPad 2, rumored to be introduced in the next two or three months.
"We're in some great markets, some fast-moving markets. We have the best products we've ever done. And incredible product pipeline, we feel very, very confident."
Wall Street's confidence in Apple today returned too. Following a $20 share price drop this morning, news of the impressive earnings report sent shares back up. In after-hours trading Apple's stock was up 1.25 percent to $344.90.
Still, it's not the ability to update and improve current products and execute plans that have been in place for the last few years that many Apple observers worry about. Rather, when considering a Jobs-less Apple it's the industry-altering products Apple has a knack for two, five, and ten years down the road that make them wonder if they can continue to produce those without him should he decide not to return to Apple full time.