Steve Jobs' Medical Leave May Leave Apple in a Lurch

As Apple chief executive Steve Jobs takes an indefinite medical leave, his company is at a crossroads.

Over the last decade, Apple has morphed from a mere computer company to an empire whose influence reaches to nearly every screen in the home. This shift arguably wouldn't have happened without Jobs, whose obsession with detail and unwillingness to compromise is legend in the tech world. Let's dwell on this for a moment.

Apple's Decade of Expansion

Apple's transformation started with the iPod and iTunes in 2001. Together, those two products dragged the music industry into the Internet era, and iTunes now accounts for 70 percent of digital music sales and more than 28 percent of all music sales in the United States, according to NPD, a market research group.

In 2007, Apple released the first iPhone, and its basic size and shape -- a thin, black touchscreen slab -- continues to be imitated by Android and Windows Phone 7 hardware makers. But the iPhone's most defining characteristic, the App Store, came a year later. A vibrant app marketplace is now a must for any modern smartphone platform, and we've seen the app mentality creep into televisions and Web browsers as well.

Apple's last major new product category was the tablet. The company has sold more than 10 million iPads, reportedly comprising 95 percent of the tablet market as of the third quarter of 2010. As with the iPhone, a wave of competitors are now readying their own iPad-like hardware on such rival operating systems as Android, WebOS and RIM's QNX.

With the exception of televisions, it is now possible to own Apple products for all your computing, communication and entertainment needs. And the recently revamped Apple TV gives the company a foothold in living rooms as well.

Now What?

According to Apple, Jobs will remain CEO and continue to make strategic decisions for the company. And a New York Times rundown of Apple's executive team suggests that there's enough talent to keep Apple running on a day-to-day basis.

But what about the next decade? From media players to phones to tablets to televisions, Steve Jobs stretched the Apple empire to its limits over the last 10 years, and it's hard to imagine where the company will go next.

Mere improvements to existing products won't be enough. We've already seen Android phones outsell the iPhone, and upcoming Android tablets pose a similar threat to the iPad. In the living room, Apple already has formidable competition in Roku, Boxee and Google TV. Apple needs more big innovations if it's going to keep expanding. Without Jobs' full-time involvement, that could be a problem.

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