The marriage between Apple Computer Inc. and its cofounder Steven P. Jobs had been dead for months.

What hit the papers last week was a sudden, unexpected separation and the beginning of a messy custody fight.

The separation was announced by Jobs Sept. 12, when he told Apple's board of directors he intended to resign as chairman and start a new company. Both Jobs and Apple's president, John Sculley, spoke of a possible partnership between Apple and Jobs' new venture.

However real those prospects were at the time, they were dashed by Jobs' disclosure the next day that he had recruited five of Apple's best managers to join him in his new venture -- reportedly a project to build a powerful new computer for the educational market. While Jobs described it last week, before he cut off contact with the press, as the kind of innocent spinoff that has helped build Silicon Valley, Apple says it was a betrayal. William V. Campbell, Apple's executive vice president for sales and marketing, who had two valued aides among the five managers, said the disclosure of Jobs' plans was "stunning, shocking."

"We felt we were so badly deceived that I think it's impossible to make an comment on that," Sculley said, referring to the possibilty of future business ties between Jobs and Apple. At week's end, lawyers for both sides were squared off over the issue of whether Jobs had breached a fiduciary responsibility as Apple's chairman by planning a new venture and recruiting key employes while still serving as chairman.

The custody fight, then, is over the intimate knowledge of Apple's technology and strategies that Jobs -- and to a lesser extent, the five managers he recruited -- have taken with them. It is over "whatever is in Steve's head that belongs to Apple . . . . I think they can hem him in, and they will," said one former Apple executive.

Apple was not discussing the legal issues, at least in detail. But Sculley said, "No one at Apple wants to inhibit Steve from the opportunity of getting on with his life , but we believe he ought to start with the same ground rules that the original founders had when they started Apple. That means starting from scratch," Sculley told the San Jose Mercury News. From scratch is where Jobs, 30, started just a decade ago, melding his brilliant, visionary grasp of the commercial potential of a small, inexpensive computer with the technological brilliance of Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak, to create the personal computer market. While Jobs had never written a line of computer code, according to Wozniak, he had few rivals as a charismatic leader. "He has visions, he sees concepts as well as anyone in this world," said Campbell.

As Apple blossomed, Jobs turned to outsiders for day-to-day management, recruiting Sculley in 1983 from PepsiCo Inc., where he had been president of domestic operations.

Despite the obvious closeness that Jobs and Sculley had developed, Apple-watchers believe that Jobs -- looking at the company through his own sharply subjective lens -- had increasingly lost confidence in Apple's management.

His response was to separate himself from Apple's mainstream, create a team of "insanely brilliant" technicians and managers and build the Apple Macintosh personal computer, noted Michael Moritz, author of a book about Apple, "The Little Kingdom."

As a television documentary about Apple noted, Jobs' Macintosh team flew a pirate's Jolly Roger flag over their outpost and prided themselves in their "freedom to innovate unencumbered by Apple's bureaucracy." Jobs mocked Apple's efforts to strengthen itself by hiring professional managers from the outside, the way other big companies did.

"It didn't work at all. Most of them were bozos," he said. "They knew how to manage, but they didn't know how to do anything."

Jobs' team did produce the Macintosh, a unique personal computer with startlingly original graphics; but, as Apple executives see it, the Macintosh exemplified Jobs' weaknesses as well as his strengths.

The Macintosh was a "closed" computer -- unlike International Business Machines Corp.'s rival personal computer, it did not welcome the attachment of other manufacturers' accessories, which could expand its usefulness to a broader range of customers.

It was as if Jobs had decided what kind of machine the customers should want, and had provided it, take it or leave it, said Jan Lewis, president of Palo Alto Research Group.

The same cold shoulder was turned to outside software designers -- even though their support of the Apple II had assured the company's success.

"Apple was rather arrogant [toward the outside software and accessory community], and it came from Jobs," contended Lewis.

When Macintosh sales slumped early this year, along with the rest of the computer industry's sales, Apple's directors began to push Sculley to rein in Jobs, some sources say.

The outcome was a brief, sharp struggle for power over Memorial Day weekend that ended in a major restructuring of management that stripped Jobs of all operational responsibility.

"I think he had a real choice of staying on as chairman, biting his lip and waiting to see if Sculley could make it, or getting out," said Moritz.

He chose to get out, in a stroke of headstrong mis-timing that was both characteristic and tragic, said Moritz. "His impulsiveness has been on public display this past week," said Moritz. "I can't believe this is where he wanted to be." The real tragedy, he added, is that the educational computer project that caught Jobs' eye is exactly the kind of thing he should have stayed at Apple to run.

While lawyers decide whether to settle or sue, Apple goes on charting a future without Jobs, as it has since Memorial Day. "It's been a tough time," said Campbell. "It's taken a tremendous amount of communication and concentration to dismantle the organization and put it back together again."

Ironically, Jobs' decision last Tuesday to go public with his resignation, created a furor that virtually obscured a series of new product announcements by Apple -- some of them aimed directly at making the Macintosh more open and accessible to outside software designers and accessory companies whom Jobs had scorned. "Apple has really opened up; it's learned a lesson," said Lewis.

For all Apple's image as an open, responsive company, it wasn't a very good listener always, said Moritz.

And for all Jobs' gifts, Lewis added, they weren't suited to the steady addition of quality and value to its existing product line -- the kind of incremental progress that is essential to the growth of a company as large as Apple is now, with its $1.5 billion in annual sales. "Apple Computer had not demonstrated its ability to add value over time," said Campbell.

If it had, if Apple had lavished as much attention on expanding the capability of its workhorse Apple II computer as it did on brand new computers like the Macintosh and the failed Lisa, Apple's position in the business computer market could have been much more important, Campbell said.

In the future, said Campbell, Apple will listen much harder to customers as well as outside suppliers. An example is the company's decision to delay introduction of a new accessory called a file server that permits personal computers in offices to function together as part of a data and information-swapping network. The file server for the Macintosh was promised last January but not is on hold, Campbell said. "What we needed to do is to take a step back to assess what the market requirements are" before designing and releasing its own product. In the meantime, Apple says it is enthusiastically supporting outside suppliers who are tackling the file server problem.

Apple's business is looking up, despite the tribulations of the computer market and its own stormy summer, Sculley said. "Our business is getting stronger. Our internal morale is getting better . . . . Decisions are being made with less internal controversy." The bright side of the computer industry shakeout now under way is that it forces companies back to the core of their strength -- and Apple, with its products, traditions and a healthy balance sheet, has strengths, he said.

Will Apple be the same without Jobs? One former executive, once close to Jobs, says that isn't clear, but he believes Apple has outgrown its cofounder. "I always equated him with Apple. But the company has changed, the industry has changed. Everything has changed."