Can Tim Cook Keep Apple Afloat In Steve Jobs’ Absence?

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Apple’s announcement that CEO Steve Jobs will be taking a medical leave of absence has left many wondering about the company’s future.

Jobs maintains that he’ll “continue as CEO and be involved in major strategic decisions for the company,” but has handed day to day operations over to Apple COO Tim Cook. That’s not really saying much, though, because as COO, Cook is already responsible for Apple’s day to day operations.

(MORE: Who Is Tim Cook and Can He Truly Replace Steve Jobs?)

This isn’t the first time Jobs has taken medical leave, but unlike the six-month hiatus he took in 2009, this one’s open-ended. In Jobs’ e-mail to Apple employees, he went so far as to say, “I have great confidence that Tim and the rest of the executive management team will do a terrific job executing the exciting plans we have in place for 2011.”

This also isn’t the first time that Tim Cook has filled in for Jobs. He filled in as CEO during Jobs’ absence in 2009 when Jobs underwent a liver transplant, and he filled in for a couple months in 2004 after Jobs had surgery to treat pancreatic cancer.

Who is Tim Cook?

Cook joined Apple in 1998 “to streamline the company’s jumbled manufacturing and distribution operations,” according to a prior TIME profile. He spent a brief six months as a VP at Compaq before joining Apple, with 12 years under his belt at IBM before that. (More on Apple’s Hits and Misses So Far)

Like Jobs, Cook takes $1 in yearly salary. He reportedly received a $5 million bonus last year as a thank-you for filling in for Jobs during 2009, plus another $52.3 million in stock. Cook also sits on the board at Nike.

Cook is believed by many to eventually be Jobs’ successor based on his past experience with filling in during Jobs’ medical leaves, and the fact that he’s been handling day to day operations at Apple since 2005.

An Apple GM told Wired in 2009:

“Tim runs Apple, and he has been running Apple for a long time now. Steve is the face of the company and very involved with product development but Tim is the guy who takes all those designs and turns it into a big pile of cash.”

Even so, the big question on everyone’s mind still looms: Can Tim Cook (or anyone, for that matter) actually replace Steve Jobs? In Cook’s own words during an interview with Fortune in 2008, “No. He’s irreplaceable.”

Perhaps the more important question on everyone’s mind should be: Does Steve Jobs need to be replaced for Apple to survive?

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