What he has left is a firm with a market cap of $350 billion, with millions of fans around the world devoted to its products in a way no other computer company has ever achieved, and with over $25 billion in cash.
Apple has redefined its space from one where hardware and software are separate to one where they're combined, with services and commerce, into a single ecosystem controlled by the hardware vendor. Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN), Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) and Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) are all working hard to replicate this system, and the question becomes how long Apple can hold its lead.
In an operating system sense the lead is already gone. Devices based on Android, a Linux pioneered by Google, outsell iPhones and iPads. Apple also trails both Amazon and Google when it comes to clouds. The iCloud is not a cloud but hosted services. Jobs was building a huge data center in North Carolina to host the iCloud, but a cloud is defined by not having a single data center, a single point of failure. Clouds use multiple centers to gain some of the resiliency of the Internet itself.
What Apple has is the channel. No one sells as much online content as Apple. No other company can persuade its users to part with their money the way Apple can. Its business model, and the profits from that business model, are as hard as diamond and just as valuable.
The bigger problem is at the top.
Tim Cook is a fine executive, but he's a number-two. Just like Steve Ballmer at Microsoft is a number two. I have compared him to Jackson Browne taking over from Elvis Presley because, when Presley died, Jackson Browne was indeed able to fill arenas, and his crowds were very enthusiastic. But what has Tim Cook given us - an iPhone 4S?
To continue the analogy, Apple's board needs to find Bruce Springsteen. They need to find a new visionary, with a new vision, that looks ahead 10-20 years. And they need to give that person full power to move the company in the direction of that vision.
The King is dead. Apple needs a Boss.
Very few companies do this. The only one that comes to mind is General Electric (NYSE:GE), which is transformed in new ways every generation by its CEO. Jeff Immelt's GE is not Jack Welch's, and Welch's wasn't Reginald Jones.
But this doesn't happen in tech. IBM (NYSE:IBM) foundered for decades after Thomas Watson Jr. resigned, with amiable sales types who were vulnerable to the first kid with a Clue who came along. (A kid named Gates.) HP's (NYSE:HPQ) collapse after the retirements of Bill Hewlett and David Packard is now legendary. If a truck runs over Jeff Bezos of Amazon tomorrow (God forbid) I say sell.
Apple won't fall quickly. There will be a pullback, then a recovery, and things will appear to be going well, but rivals will start catching up. Amazon may catch Kindle Fire, and Larry Page may take Google to new heights. The best tech companies are not democracies. They are dictatorships.
What Apple needs is a new visionary, with a new vision. Until it finds that it will be just another tech company. And it would help if that new visionary were really young, maybe under 30.
You know what would be really bold? Buy Facebook to get Mark Zuckerberg. Make him CEO, give him full power to combine social networking with hardware, commerce and an ecosystem. Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS), which has convinced its customers Facebook is worth $100 billion, would love to give its investors the Apple stock, and if they did that I'd say buy.
However, until they do something like that, sell.
Disclosure: I am long IBM, GE.