Steve Jobs: Not Dead Yet

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Robert Galbraith / Reuters

Apple Inc CEO Steve Jobs takes the stage beneath a sign that makes light of reports on his health at Apple's "Let's Rock" media event in San Francisco.

Apple's big event today in San Francisco left many people wondering: What the heck was that all about? Normally, the great Steve Jobs uses his time on the podium to delight and surprise the masses. But today he gave little more than a preview of the new holiday line of iPods, and the TV ads that will accompany them.

You don't have to be as cynical as me to understand the real reason this event was staged: It was so the world could watch Jobs swim the Yangtze River.

Surely you remember that bit of masterful 20th-century propaganda? In 1966, Mao Zedong, the communist leader who united China and brought it back from the brink of ruin, famously swam the Yangtze. This stunt confounded the China hands and others who had believed that Mao was either dead — done in by his rivals — or dying of some illness, as had been rumored. (He was 73 after all.) But, no, the Leader was alive and astoundingly healthy: On a day in July, the Chairman appeared in his bathrobe on the riverbanks in Wuhan, accompanied by 5,000 young people. He was photographed smiling and waving; the Party-controlled press reported that he swam nearly nine miles downstream, in a little over an hour — which is doubtful.

But it's certainly true that he lived for another decade.

When Jobs, who battled pancreatic cancer four years ago and has been the subject of whispers of ill health since he appeared looking gaunt at the Macworld conference in June, took the stage today, it was in front of a giant slide that said, "The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated."

This was the perfect photo op, and the world's press was there to videotape, photograph and live-blog it. Never mind that most of us in the audience have already written his obituary, or that Bloomberg accidentally published its version. The theme of Jobs being alive and well was the message of the day and was echoed throughout the subsequent demos. (Two of the songs El Jobso played for us on his new iPods: Beck's "Guess I'm Doing Fine" and Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright.")

After the event, Jobs even briefly joined the media in a room where Apple's new product line was being shown. He walked under his own steam, of course, easily and without any apparent discomfort. While he remains impossibly thin — I doubt he weighs 100 lbs. wet — he actually looked jaunty. (The new version of the iPod Nano was billed, by the way, as "The Thinnest iPod Ever.")

That's the good news. Indeed, it's excellent news. Whether Jobs's health is in decline or not, it's undeniable that the past five years have been the most fertile of his magnificent career.

The bad news was that none of that fertility was in evidence today. This was the most sterile Apple event since Jobs returned from exile, unified Apple and brought the company back from the brink of ruin. He actually spent 15 minutes on a new iTunes feature called Genius that does little more than recommend playlists of music you might like based on music you're listening to, with one click. These if-you-like-that-then-you'll-like-this music discovery services have been around since the mid-1990s. It's hardly the kind of zowee innovation we've come to expect. (And for the record, I have to say, Genius, whose super-secret algorithm makes recommendations by comparing your personal iTunes library to all the music that users have bought on iTunes, seemed a little unimaginative. During a Genius demo, Jobs played Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel"; you might be surprised to learn that if you like "Heartbreak," you might also like Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" and Elton John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road." Zzzz.)

O.K., sometimes even a magician can't pull a rabbit out of a hat. Apple has sold more than 160 million iPods to date, and it's good business to refresh the lines now and again. It's hardly news, though. Indeed, the most interesting non-health related item to come out of the event was the news that a possible fix for some of the bugs that plague the iPhone — better battery management, less crashing, faster backups — is coming out in a 2.1 firmware on Sept. 12. But the iPhone's long-awaited cut-and-paste functionality? Keep waiting.

So, Steve? Man, I'm glad you're alive and well. But do us all a favor, and get back to work.

See photos of iPhone 3G mania here.