Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) can't replace Steve Jobs, anymore than Alabama could replace Bear Bryant, or UCLA replace John Wooden, or the LA Lakers could Phil Jackson.
But if you can combine the founder's best qualities in two people, and put good people around them, maybe you can keep winning. If you have both a good coach and a good general manager, who work well together, you can keep winning.
That's what Apple is subtly selling today, with dueling profiles of CEO Tim Cook and designer Jonathan Ive.
In a Fortune cover story Cook is described as an operations guy, a lean man obsessive over details, who actually had his own part in Apple's past success. Cook was Jobs' China hand, and he's doubling down on its manufacturing infrastructure there, investing $10 billion in making its supply chain there the country's best.
Chinese readers might see a hint of their own country in Cook. A sort of Jiang Zemin to Jobs' Deng Xiaoping. Deng set the direction, Jiang consolidated it. (I know this is an oversimplification - go with me on this one.)
In the same way Jobs created Apple, but Cook is the detail man who can consolidate those gains, "modernizing" Apple to the extent that it becomes a more "normal" company - one that can pay a dividend for instance - while still maintaining its unique corporate culture.
In short, Cook is the technocrat who can run the ship. But who will be the visionary designer?
That would be Jonathan Ive, or to be more precise Sir Jonathan Ive, who was interviewed this week by the BBC in the wake of his knighthood.
Ive talks about being part of a design team that has been together for 15 years, of trying to solve the same problems during that time, of his job being "part fine art, part engineering." These are the right things to say.
"The goal isn't to make money, the goal is to try and develop the very best products that we can." That's a very important quote, because in any creative enterprise you must first focus on the job at hand, and only then on the money, or else you can't succeed.
Cook focuses on the money. Cook makes certain that what gets designed is made efficiently and well, that the trains run on time. Ive focuses on the product, making it as excellent as his team can possibly make it, based on the lessons they learned working under Jobs.
That's really the best Apple could have possibly done for itself, upon losing its great founder. To have two men he trained, each focused on half the mission, both happy in the work and young enough to keep doing it for some time to come.
But I still want to see Apple TV.
Disclosure: I am long AAPL.