Can Apple Survive Without Jobs?

Rumors about the health of its indispensable CEO cast a shadow over the company's future

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Jeff Chiu / AP

Apple CEO Steve Jobs

The top marketing guy at Apple drew the unenviable job of filling in for CEO Steve Jobs at the annual Macworld Expo on Jan. 6. That would be hard enough under normal circumstances. Jobs is Apple, after all, its co-founder, Great Helmsman and Divine Light.

But these were not normal circumstances. And Philip W. Schiller, Apple's senior vice president of worldwide product marketing, is no Steven P. Jobs.

Where, oh where, is Jobs? Recuperating, we're told, from a hormonal imbalance that may or may not be related to the pancreatic cancer he fought off with surgery in July 2004. It's O.K., Jobs says, vowing to fight this thing, whatever it is, while continuing to run Apple as its CEO.

Which is terrific, because, well, who can replace this guy? You've got to wonder whether Jobs is a creature loftier, more meaningful than just another corporate big cheese. CEOs come and go, after all, and some of them are every bit as megalomaniacally brilliant--think of Henry Ford, Thomas Watson, Sam Walton, even Bill Gates. Each of them set up a business that, massive and complex as it was, could be replicated and run by others.

Jobs is different. He's a one-man brand, an innovator and agitator, a technical and cultural touchpoint for the media and information industries. He brought us the Mac machine that defines the personal-computer experience today. He changed music with the iPod, nearly making Sony obsolete. The touchscreen iPhone conquered Motorola's once so hot Razr. It's his vision and insane focus on style and function that made Apple the temple of techno-cool. So, if Apple is Jobs, what is it without him?

That question is why the rumor mill, whose r.p.m.s intensify in advance of any possible news coming out of 1 Infinite Loop, shifted into turbodrive. On the eve of Macworld, it was announced that Jobs would not be making the keynote speech. Instead, Schiller, who often helps Jobs demo new toys at events, would be running the show.

So here comes poor Schiller onto the brilliant stage of San Francisco's Moscone Center. Whereas Jobs is known for his handmade St. Croix black mock turtleneck and jeans, Schiller looks defiantly nerdy, sporting the kind of engineer blue button-down shirt popularized by the dotcom crowd in 1997. Whereas Jobs electrifies a room like some superhero from the X-Men, Schiller saps energy from the hall like an Everyman. You sympathize. He is a good dude. And this has gotta suck.

Schiller's job right now is to make it seem as if the old Apple magic is still alive and well. Never mind that besides the absence of Jobs, Apple was missing anything truly zowie to show off. The best Schiller could muster was "I can't tell you how much I appreciate you all showing up and bringing your energy and enthusiasm to this keynote." Zzzzzzzzzzzzz.

In truth, Jobs looked alarmingly thin in his appearances at Apple events during the summer and has not been seen in public lately. On Dec. 30, the gadget site Gizmodo, quoting an inside source, claimed Jobs was too ill to deliver the speech and his health was "rapidly declining," predicting "the inevitable news" would come in the spring.

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