The period between Macworld Expo in early January and Apple's own World Wide Developer Conference (WWDC) in midyear is traditionally relatively humdrum, anyhow: The laptop and desktop Macs the company rolls out during the period tend to be existing models with zippier CPUs, not all-new models, and fresh new iPods arrive in the fall. Conventional wisdom has it that the lack of any Apple blockbusters at Macworld Expo means that the company has a significant new item or two up its sleeve for release in the next month or two, such as an upgraded Mac Mini and/or iMac, or maybe even a new iPhone. It might. But the Apple marketing machine is extraordinarily potent even if has to do without a turtlenecked Jobs personally demoing a product to acolytes and journalists; it can surely pay for enough billboards and TV commercials to get any gizmo it releases off to a solid start.
No, it's not the products that appear between now and late June that run the biggest risk of being hurt by Jobs' medical leave. It's the ones that will happen later in 2009, in 2010, and maybe even beyond--the ones that are still on the drawing board, and still in need of the disciplined refinement that Jobs is so skilled at providing.
And speaking of drawing boards, the executive that Jobs reminds me of most isn't another inhabitant of Silicon Valley. It's Walt Disney--another self-made California tycoon so synonymous with the company he founded that it was hard to imagine it without him. (I'd feel that way even if Jobs hadn't created Pixar, the greatest animation studio since Disney, in his copious spare time--and eventually sold it to Disney.)
Walt Disney wasn't an animator; Steve Jobs isn't an engineer. But like Disney, Jobs excels both at defining his company's overall vision and fussing over niggling little details of the products he creates. Apple's overarching vision is unlikely to change radically in six months--and Jobs says he intends "to remain involved in major strategic decisions while I am out"--so it's the niggling little details that I worry about.
Jobs, like Disney, is as much an editor as a showman, and as with all world-class editors, the things he takes away are at least as important as the things he adds. It's tough to envision an Apple without Jobs coming up with a cell phone with only one button on the front, for instance, or a laptop with a battery that can't be removed. He may or may not have been the instigator of those particular decisions, but they represent Jobsian thinking, and are a radical departure from the groupthink and compromise that make so many tech products from other companies so unmemorable.
Apple is unquestionably working on next-generation Macs, iPods, and iPhones right now that won't see the light of an Apple Store until well after Jobs's scheduled return. It may be working on tablets or TVs or netbooks. If any or all of those products have to do without his input at crucial moments during the design process, they'll suffer--even if he's back at work well before they're released. There's certainly no evidence that Tim Cook, with whom the buck will stop until June, can play Jobs' editing role.
Assuming (and hoping) that Jobs does indeed wrap up his medical leave as planned--perhaps in time to preside over Apple's World Wide Developer Conference, which is usually in June but hasn't had its 2009 schedule announced yet--I'm betting that we'll never know the full impact of his time off. Apple's brass isn't going to badly botch any products while he's away, and the fact that Steve Jobs is involved in a decision doesn't guarantee it'll be a good one. (Exhibit A: The G4 Cube Mac.) When the day comes that Apple has to do without Jobs permanently, slavishly mimicking his thinking won't be any way to keep Apple flourishing. The Disney company's attempts to channel Walt after his death in 1966 left it floundering for years. But for the next six months, asking "What would Steve do?" should be good enough.
Former PC World editor in chief Harry McCracken now blogs about personal tech at his own site, Technologizer . This article is a coproduction of PC World and Technologizer and is being published on both sites.