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Why does Apple pretend there's no such thing as the next Steve Jobs?

And why aren't shareholders up in arms about it?

Apple's CEO, Steve Jobs, is as much a part of its brand as the white plastic and lower-case i. But for its own good Apple must start planning for life without its talismanic leader, says silicon.com's Jo Best.

Can you imagine Apple without Steve Jobs? If a report in The Wall Street Journal is correct, then the Apple board have may have started to do just that. According to the paper, they've been talking to executive recruiters and the head of one "high-profile technology company".

"The conversations weren't explicitly aimed at recruiting a new chief executive and were more of an informal exploration of the company's options," The Wall Street Journal said, citing "people familiar with the matter".

Apple CEO Steve Jobs

Avoiding planning for a successor to CEO Steve Jobs could be far worse for Apple than facing up to the issue in publicPhoto: James Martin/CNET

Is this talk of the next Steve Jobs really true? Not according to the man himself, who told the paper the reports of such conversations are "hogwash".

Another company synonymous with its CEO and over which questions about succession continue to hang is analytics firm SAS. Dr Jim Goodnight was one of the founders of the software vendor and has remained its CEO ever since, turning the company into a $2bn-a-year business. He almost makes Jobs look like a part-timer.

Most CEOs of publicly traded companies have a tenure of three years or so, according to Goodnight, and so they don't have time to plan for their succession. Goodnight has had 30 years to plan for his, Jobs 15 or so and yet both prefer to keep quiet.

Of course, Goodnight's SAS is not a publicly traded company. It's privately held and so he can plan, or not plan, as he sees fit and share that information, or not, as he prefers. He has no shareholders to appease and in any case, if analysts are correct, the company knows how it will look after Goodnight finally says goodbye. Apparently, the same cannot be said of Apple.

When I interviewed Goodnight some years ago about the question of his succession, he told me: "There's a reason people don't talk about succession - if you say it, two or three of your best people may decide to leave because they're not going to make it [to CEO]."

That factor may be true and may well figure in Apple's thinking. However, to avert one staffing crisis, these companies could be precipitating a far larger one.

Every company should have a succession plan in place. Who knows when Jobs might decide to retire or take a position elsewhere? Granted, neither is a likely scenario in the short term, but having a succession plan for your CEO makes as much sense as having a disaster-recovery plan for your IT infrastructure. You hope you won't have to use it, but creating one means you won't be caught on the hop if the worst does happen.

SAS CEO Dr Jim Goodnight

Questions about succession also hang over CEO of analytics firm SAS, Dr Jim GoodnightPhoto: SAS

Unfortunately for Apple, Jobs is viewed as so crucial to the company in the eyes of its shareholders that even mention of his departure is guaranteed to put a crimp in the iPad maker's stock price.

Yet ignoring or denying plans for a successor to Steve Jobs in this way could be even worse for the company's shares - no CEO stays at a company forever. Can the company really be so short-sighted not to have a backup in mind to ensure Apple's stellar performance continues beyond the tenure of its current CEO?

And why aren't stockholders up in arms at this wrong-headedness, demanding to know that the Apple board has its own business-continuity plans somewhere in the Cupertino vaults?

The genius of Jobs has written Apple into an uncomfortable situation. The company has prospered because he's one of a kind. If he were another faceless tech exec, Apple wouldn't be in the position it is now. It would neither have returned from the dark days of its mid-1990s slump, nor would it be in such a quandary over the choice - or indeed existence - of its next CEO. Sports jacket and chinos-wearing, business cliché-larded Silicon Valley drones are 10 a penny. CEOs with the technical and marketing savvy Jobs has displayed are not.

Luckily for the company, the news of no news on Jobs' succession surfaced at the same time as Apple's strong latest quarterly results, which revealed record sales of iPads and iPhones, and ensured the share price stayed more than healthy.

Jobs made Apple into the business it is today, no question, but any company must be more than the sum of its parts.

Finding a replacement for him won't be easy, but it must be done. It's time Apple started thinking different.

About

Jo Best has been covering IT for the best part of a decade for publications including silicon.com, Guardian Government Computing and ZDNet in both London and Sydney.

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