There are two ways to view Philip Schiller’s keynote at Macworld Tuesday: It was either a respectable effort by one of Steve Jobs’ understudies or a bummer since the main attraction wasn’t on stage and the announcements left a lot to be desired. Both would miss the big picture.

The big picture is this: For the long-term health of Apple the company needs to prove that it is more than just Steve Jobs. Jobs could stay at the helm of Apple for 10 months or 10 years. It doesn’t really matter. At some point in the future, Apple will have to get along without Jobs whether retirement, a boardroom coup, cancer or a hormone imbalance leads to a change.

That’s why Schiller’s keynote, which probably benefited from low expectations, is more important than it initially appears. Apple is putting executives such as marketing guru Schiller and operating chief Tim Cook in the limelight to show it has a bench. The transition from Jobs is a gradual process that will take years to unfold if Apple is lucky.

If Apple has any sense it will simply steal the transition playbook from Microsoft instead of this press release back and forth it has deployed. The software giant telegraphed its management changes so it wouldn’t spook customers and investors and followed through with a plan that made sense for all parties.

Remember Microsoft’s transition? Bill Gates stepped down as CEO in January 2000 and handed the reins to Steve Ballmer, who became president of Microsoft in 1998. Gates continued as chief software architect for eight years and Microsoft highlighted a bunch of executives–notably Ray Ozzie. Gates’ last day was June 27.

Microsoft’s transition to a new management team took a decade to complete. Why should Apple be any different assuming Jobs’ is healthy enough to continue? When the time is right Jobs should initiate a similar process. (full Story)

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