As irreplaceable as Steve Jobs is, Apple has three factors that will keep the company on the right track in the years ahead.

First, Apple is in great shape in the smartphone and tablet markets, both are which are going to see explosive growth over the next 3-5 years. Even if Apple simply holds its ground at about 20% of the smartphone market and levels out to 50% of the tablet market — both of which are highly likely — it is going to continue to grow sales, sell hundreds of millions of devices, and remain very profitable. Apple simply needs to iterate wisely, even conservatively, on both products to continue its success and it’s safe to assume that Jobs himself has helped set the direction and strategy of these two product lines for the next several iterations.

Second, Apple and Steve Jobs have been preparing for this for a long time. It’s been eight years since Jobs was first diagnosed with cancer. Since then he’s been on leave from the company several times and had to rely on his lieutenants to carry the company forward in his absence, even if it wasn’t absolute at that point. Jobs has put the right people in key positions to keep Apple moving and innovating in the ways he preferred. As long as hand-picked leaders like Tim Cook, Jony Ive, Scott Forstall, and Phil Shiller stick around, Apple will be fine. And, I expect that they will stick around, since most of them have already been offered bigger, more lucrative gigs at other companies and decided to stay and continue their work at Apple. The real test will come in several years when the handoff is made from Steve’s leaders to the next generation of Apple chiefs.

Third, as much as Jobs is legendary outside of Apple, it’s even more so inside the company. The myth and legend of Jobs is going to sustain the company for a while. The principles he used in building products, organizing the company, marketing, hiring, and more are much better known inside the company, and they will use that for years to guide decision-making — as long as the current leadership remains in place and keeps everyone united around carrying forward Jobs’s vision. That doesn’t mean there won’t be some minor tweaks to the vision. That will have to happen, and I think it will. For example, I expect Tim Cook, who has an enterprise background from Compaq, to explicitly go after the enterprise market much more than Jobs ever did. That would be a good sign that Apple is taking the best of Jobs’s approach and tweaking it to meet current market needs and opportunities.

The great debate

If you’re interested in this topic, we’re going to be discussing it live over on ZDNet as part of the Great Debate series on Tuesday, October 25 at 2:00PM Eastern. I’ll be arguing that Apple is likely to continue its run of success (at least in the near future) while ZDNet’s Jason Perlow will argue the counterpoint. ZDNet editor in chief Larry Dignan will moderate.

Here’s how it works. The moderator sets the topic. The two debaters make their opening statements on Monday. Then, we get together for a live one-hour discussion on Tuesday when the moderator tosses out questions and both of the debaters have a few minutes to answer and respond to each other’s comments. After the online chat, both of the debaters make a closing statement on Wednesday. Meanwhile, during the whole process, the audience gets an opportunity to vote for one side of the argument or the other, and can also join the discussion by leaving comments. On Thursday, the voting closes and the moderator declares a winner — sometimes bucking the popular vote.

Join the debate: Apple: Stay the course vs. Must grow up