Most high-tech analysts agree the late Steve Jobs left Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) well positioned for the next few years, backed by an all-star bench of seasoned technology executives.
It's tough to find fault with the operational savoir faire of new CEO Tim Cook, the design chops of Jonathan Ive, the marketing and presentation skills of Phil Schiller, or the slick software know-how of Scott Forstall.
Led by Jobs, these men helped sell 128 million iPhones and 30 million iPads over the last three-plus years, giving Apple a market capitalization rivaling oil power Exxon and $76 billion in cash and securities. $76 billion, or nearly double that of Google's $39 billion.
Apple is humming like a well-oiled machine. It's launching the iPhone 4S in a week and Piper Jaffray expects the company will sell 25 million iPhones in this coming holiday quarter, and 111 million for 2012, which is when the iPad 3 is expected to vault the next explosion in tablet sales.
And yet now that Jobs is gone, investors and diehard consumers are left to wonder what the future holds, and whether Apple can continue its fantastic run in the face of Internet rivals such as Google and Amazon, which are gunning for more mobile market share.
"Navigating big shifts in technology and consumer behavior over the long term is always a challenge," Current Analysis analyst Avi Greengart told eWEEK.
"Although Steve Jobs had an unmatched track record in this regard, there is no guarantee that his streak would have continued unbroken. At least the people he relied on to help make these decisions are still at Apple - people like Tim Cook, Scott Forstall, Jonathan Ive, Greg Joswiak, Phil Schiller, and others. They have certainly internalized Jobs' process, and given Apple's strong platforms, they will be well positioned for any future challenges. Beyond that, nobody knows."
Yet Enderle Group analyst Rob Enderle believes that because Apple was redesigned around Jobs' unique skills and designing a consumer electronics product and bringing it to market, the company will experience a degradation within 24 months or sooner.
No one knows for sure, indeed. Looking into the crystal ball, Apple could produce that unicorn-like Apple Television the high-tech world has been speculating about for at least 5 years now. Unlike the current Netflix and YouTube video-streaming box that sells for $99, the full Apple Television would resemble the Google TV Web TV service.
Such a service would include a Safari Web browser and sync content and services through iCloud across users' iPhones, iPads and Macs, and provide a gateway to the 425,000-plus applications in Apple's App Store. This offering would compete with not only Google TV, but services such as Netflix and Amazon's Instant Video service.
"We continue to believe that Apple is developing a television that will succeed its current Apple TV set-top-box, likely in late [calendar year] 2012"Gene Munster, an analyst with Piper Jaffray, wrote in a June 23 research note. "Apple's strong iOS developer community would likely jump at the chance to build apps for an Apple Television, and Apple's iOS users would likely jump at the chance to buy one."
It could be, in Jobs' parlance, the next Insanely Great thing. At the least, it could be one of the next "one more thing" launches capping a future Apple product event.
Yet Enderle doubts Apple would play here, owning to the traditionally low margins TV yields.
"TV is a thin margin commodity business as both HP and Pioneer discovered," Enderle said. "I doubt even Jobs would try to enter a space already so aggressively defined by price and saturated with product. Now if they could come up with something to replace the TV then..."
"They'd have to position this as enough different than a TV for them to hold margin. Jobs might be able to do this (and I say might given the Google TV belly flop may have already soured the market) but Cook isn't up to this level of problem at all. But we'll see, they've never tried a saturated market in current years. Saturated markets are a bitch. "
So is not knowing what direction Apple is going to go in next. But then knowing would spoil some of the fun of trying to figure it out.