For two years I wrote a satirical blog under the persona of Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs, and one of the recurring themes was that Jobs is not actually human but in fact is a demigod, the offspring of Zeus and a mortal woman, an immortal figure who uses his extraordinary powers to restore a sense of childlike wonder to the world by creating magical consumer-electronics products like the iPod and iPhone. This is, after all, a CEO who inspires a frightening level of adoration from Apple fanatics. These people think nothing of camping out overnight in freezing cold weather just to attend one of his speeches. No other chief executive is so inextricably linked to his company's brand and products. As one Wall Street analyst put it this year, "Apple is Steve Jobs, and Steve Jobs is Apple." (Story continued below...)
Alas, however, Jobs is all too human, as became evident in June when he appeared at an Apple conference looking frail and gaunt, causing Apple watchers to worry that perhaps Jobs had suffered a recurrence of the pancreatic cancer for which he underwent surgery four years ago. Later, word leaked that Jobs had undergone surgery in the spring. Fears flamed up again in December when Apple announced that he would not give his annual keynote address at the Macworld conference in January. Asked about Jobs's health, an Apple spokesman says that if at some point Jobs were unable to perform his duties as CEO, Apple would make this known.
Jobs cofounded Apple in 1976, got tossed out in 1985 and returned in 1997, when the company was as close to death as a company can get. Since then he has orchestrated one of the greatest turnarounds in corporate history, making Apple into the hottest brand in consumer electronics. At the end of 1997 Apple stock was trading for about three bucks a share. Today those shares trade for $96, after shooting as high as $202 earlier this year. The weak economy might take some wind out of Apple's sails, especially since the company sells mostly to consumers rather than to corporate customers, and because Apple's products are hardly cheap. On the other hand, Apple's customers are fiercely loyal and aren't penny-pinching bargain hunters. They're not likely to start buying Dell computers or Motorola cell phones just to save a few bucks. If anything, they'll just wait a bit longer before upgrading their Apple gear.
Jobs began Apple's turnaround with the 2001 introduction of the iPod, which defined and then dominated the portable-music-player market—and which became central to the resuscitation of Apple's computer line. The Mac, once derided as a toy, today is the best personal computer on the planet, period. And the iPhone is the best smart phone. Nothing else comes close. As of the third quarter of 2008, Apple's iPhone was outselling the Research in Motion BlackBerry, even though the iPhone had been in the market for only 15 months. When measured by revenues, Apple has become the world's third-largest mobile-phone maker, behind Nokia and Samsung. All this is happening just as mobile devices are poised to become the most important computing platform.
For all this and more, thank Steve Jobs. He's not an engineer. He can't write a line of software code. He is, by most accounts, a terrible manager, prone to tantrums and abusive tirades, almost unbearable to work for. But he is also a genius —a relentless perfectionist with a keen eye for design and a Zen master's sense of which features to leave out. His products are simple, spare and elegant, with the best user interfaces in the world. Moreover, Apple is not Jobs's only home run. In 1986 he spent $10 million to buy a sad little company that was trying (and mostly failing) to sell specialized, high-end graphics computers. Twenty years later, having renamed the outfit Pixar and turned it into an animation house, he sold it to Disney for $7.4 billion. (Pixar's John Lasseter follows Jobs on NEWSWEEK's Global Elite list.)
But as for the superhuman demigod stuff? Sadly, Jobs looks a lot older than his 53 years, and even before he pulled out of Macworld, much of the buzz about Apple was focused on who might succeed him as chief executive. It's hard to imagine any mere mortal attempting to fill his shoes.