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Steve Jobs is still guiding Apple

Steve Jobs may not be managing Apple any more, but we haven't really entered the post-Jobs era yet. Because product cycles are long, the new Apple gadgets we're seeing now are all devices Jobs had a real hand in creating. It'll be at least another six months before we see the first Apple gadgets without Steve Jobs' ideas driving them.

Now, before you yell "Maps!" remember that not everything Jobs did turned to gold. He was just good at making people think it did – and that's, perhaps, the Steve Jobs magic that the company is missing right now. The Jobs era brought us the G4 Cube, the Motorola Rokr, troubled iPhone 4 antennas and the doomed Ping social network. The new Maps app has been in the works since at least 2009, when Jobs was hale and hearty. It's another Steve Jobs project.

Mobile devices, especially, take years to build. When I talk to carriers and manufacturers, they describe an 18 to 24-month product cycle from conception to sale. The iPhone 5 may have been even longer in the works. When the iPhone 4S came out, many Apple-watchers were surprised because they'd been hearing rumours of a very different iPhone in the works, one with an all-metal body. That concept, from 2011, may have eventually evolved into the iPhone 5.

So Maps and the iPhone 5 are Steve Jobs legacies. How about the iPad mini? Jobs famously disparaged 7in tablets, saying that they were only usable by deformed mutants. But it was a common rhetorical strategy of Jobs to curse whatever he was working on at the moment. Jobs said that nobody wanted to read books on an LCD screen, and released iBooks; he said nobody wanted to watch video on a handheld, and released the video iPod.

Apple's corporate structure seems to have changed a bit in the past year. At least, Tim Cook isn't taking up all the limelight the way Jobs did. But Apple's still the uniquely secretive place that Jobs set up. Yes, there have been leaks, but there have always been leaks – let's remember that Gizmodo's iPhone 4 scoop came during the Jobs era. Apple's PR operation still functions like no other, and we haven't heard about major structural changes. The system isn't broken – thanks in part to Steve Jobs, Apple's stock seems to keep going up and up – so they aren't fixing it.

But that might be where the absence of Steve Jobs starts to matter.

The real impact on Apple

The real question about Apple's future is what happens in 2014. The Jobsian product pipeline will dry up then, and it will be much more urgent for Apple to react nimbly to competitors. Apple's iOS success has become self-perpetuating because of its terrific third-party developer community, but that doesn't have an infinite lifespan.

The big question about post-Steve Jobs Apple is whether the company will have the will and bravery to blow things up and disrupt markets the way Jobs did with the iPhone and iPad. Apple is no longer an underdog; it's the leader in tablets, and the world's most profitable cell phone maker. As Microsoft can tell you, leadership creates a tendency towards inertia.

Apple has been able to move ahead in the past year through a combination of Steve Jobs' ideas and the team he set up. Tim Cook, Jony Ive, Phil Schiller, and Scott Forstall all worked with, and learned from Jobs for years. But Jobs' ideas, and his team, won't last forever; Jobs' pick to head Apple's retail stores, Ron Johnson, is already gone. When we think of a post-Steve Jobs era, next year is really the year to watch.