The man behind the iPad, the iPod, and the iPhone is taking medical leave -- leaving his company in uncertainty

The Bono of gadgets. The Johnny Depp of tech. As corporate bigwigs go, none is more revered than Steve Jobs, the Apple CEO who has led the launch of iPods, iPads, iTunes, and iEverything Else. So now that Jobs, 55, is taking medical leave from Apple, casual users and Hollywood honchos are debating the same multibillion-dollar question: Will the company that revolutionized digital entertainment keep wowing without him?

The answer is unclear. Jobs built Apple’s first PC more than 35 years ago, and his persona — soft voice, black turtleneck, charisma to spare — has become synonymous with the Apple brand. (He’s also been instrumental in closing high-profile deals, such as getting the Beatles catalog on iTunes.) A Jobs-less Apple ”will seem a little less magical,” says Christopher Breen, an editor at MacWorld. Without a flashy figurehead, there’s concern that Apple will lose ground to its competitors — much as it did in the late ’80s when Jobs was temporarily forced out. No wonder Apple shares dropped by 6 percent in the days following Jobs’ departure. (His recent announcement coincidentally came the same week Google installed Larry Page, one of its iconic founders, at the helm.)

But Jobs is just one super-shiny gear in a well-oiled iMachine. Apple has shipped more than 100 million iPods, iPads, and MacBooks. At least 150 million people have iTunes and App Store accounts. No matter what, ”music, movie, and TV studios have to reckon with Apple as a distribution channel,” says tech analyst Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies. Moving forward, Jobs’ handpicked team (including interim head Tim Cook and design guru Jonathan Ive) should know how to produce beautiful, intuitive innovations. And don’t forget, Apple’s development schedule is set years in advance — meaning Jobs will preside in spirit through at least mid-2012.