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Is interim CEO on a trial run at Apple?

Tim Cook role as interim chief executive officer at Apple Inc. could be a trial run for a time when ailing Steve Jobs, who is going on medical leave, is no longer the driving force behind the company.

Tim Cook has been here before, but not at such a critical juncture in Apple’s history.

The quiet yet exacting chief operating officer of one of the world’s most respected companies is taking the reins while his boss, one of the most admired CEOs and an icon in the world of personal technology, takes the next 5-1/2 months for a medical leave.

No one knows whether Steve Jobs will return to the company he helped found in 1976. Well-wishers — and shareholders and investors, of course — hope the best for him. But the unanswered question on everyone’s mind is whether Cook’s substitute role is a trial run for when Jobs is no longer the main force behind Apple.

Cook, the company’s chief operating officer, was in charge of Apple for two months in 2004, when Jobs was recuperating from surgery for pancreatic cancer. 

“Tim’s a rather easy-going guy, but highly driven,” said Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies technology consulting who is familiar with Apple’s operations.

“The last time when this happened, and Steve took a leave of absence, and Tim took over the company, it was during one of their heaviest development times, during the work on the iPhone — and the iPhone didn’t skip a beat.”

Bajarin said Cook, 48, is “very meticulous, very personable. And he has the confidence of the entire staff and Apple employees. He’ll continue doing a great job and make sure the company executes the vision” set by Jobs.

“What people constantly forget, what they don’t understand, is that the products Apple is working on right now have been in the pipeline the last 12, 18, 24 months,” he said. “And those are really now more an issue of execution.”

The bigger question, Bajarin said, is “will Steve Jobs be contributing to the vision eventually, say, beyond the next 24 months? At this stage of the game, it’s more important to get his health corrected than to really worry about the long term. Because if you take care of this issue of his health now, he’ll be around for the long term.”

Others in the industry give Cook kudos as an operational guru. They say he makes sure deals with everyone, from parts manufacturers to wireless carriers, are done well and precisely.

That Jobs asked Cook to fill in as CEO a second time, more than four years later, they say, speaks volumes for the high regard in which he’s held. Whether it means he’ll end up as CEO is not as clear.

While Cook does not have Jobs’ sense of design, another top Apple team member, Jonathan Ive, does. The senior vice president for industrial design helped create the original iMac, iPod and iPhone, and remains a crucial force at Apple.

The feeling among some is that while no one person can replace Jobs’ leadership, Cook and Ive combined can replicate Jobs’ strengths and perhaps even some of his vision.

Technology consultant Rob Enderle is not so sure.

“Cook is an ops guy,” he said.  “The job (of Apple’s CEO) has been designed around a unique set of marketing skills” — those of Steve Jobs. And, “Cook is no Jobs.”

The company, Enderle said, “doesn’t have a good post-Jobs plan. He has made himself too critical to the firm.”

That’s a good part of the challenge Cook — or any substitute or subsequent CEO at Apple — will face, as is trying to re-establish investor trust in what the company says publicly.

The question of Jobs’ health has been an issue for most of the past year. The 53-year-old Jobs appeared thinner and more wan at each subsequent public appearance he made in 2008.

The company’s “ham-handedness” in answering health-related questions about Jobs has hurt Apple’s credibility, said Stephen M. Davis, senior fellow at the Millstein Center for Corporate Governance and Performance at Yale University.

“It’s a company that’s brilliant when it comes to consumer electronics and just remarkably inept when it comes to communicating with investors,” he said.

At one point last year, Apple explained Jobs’ weakened appearance by saying he was suffering from a common bug. In December, Apple said Jobs wouldn’t give his traditional keynote address at the MacWorld Expo in early January because the company was starting to back away from the annual trade show.

Then, Jan. 5, Jobs made bigger news than anything that could be announced at MacWorld itself by issuing a letter to the “Apple community,” saying a hormone imbalance was behind his health problems. He described the issue as a “nutritional problem,” something relatively “simple and straightforward” to resolve.

Jobs said doctors advised him it would take him until late spring to recover. He asserted he would remain as CEO.

Then came Jobs’ e-mail to employees on Wednesday, saying that he learned during the previous week that “my health-related issues are more complex than I originally thought,” and that he would take a medical leave through the end of June. He named Cook as acting CEO.

“Look, you have to feel sympathy for Steve Jobs as a human being, but it’s hard to feel sympathy for Apple as a company for the way that they’ve handled this as a communications issue,” said Davis.

“Clearly there were some investors a few days ago who found themselves reassured with the announcement that Jobs’ health involved a hormonal imbalance, and was not worse than that.

“Frankly, I think it’s hard to know what to trust coming out of Apple, given that they’ve spent little time trying to build their credibility when it comes to communications about Steve Jobs.”

Says Bajarin: “I suspect that what happened is that the doctors really got to Steve and to the board, and said, ‘Look, for Steve’s future, he really needs to put 100 percent of his energy behind getting himself back to health.’

“Except for the short period he took off for that cancer surgery back in '04, he’s really not had a break, so I suspect they made a solid decision to deal with it aggressively, and in the short term it will be similar to what happened before: Tim Cook took over and ran the company, extremely well.”

In the long term, Bajarin said, Apple has “very strong leadership" in Cook, Chief Financial Officer Peter Oppenheimer and senior vice presidents Scott Forstall and Phil Schiller.

“The vision that Steve had has been embedded in the minds and culture of not only Apple, but its leadership, and they will carry it forward one way or the other," Bajarin said.

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