Apple without Steve Jobs: A charisma crisis

No one lights up the room like Steve Jobs does. How will they fill that void?

Apple CEO Steve Jobs’ resignation leaves the company's internal operation in the capable hands of his replacement, Tim Cook. But his departure also leaves a cavernous void when it comes to the company’s public persona. And right now, it’s unclear who may step in to fill that void.

Tech visionaries and engineers generally don’t make great orators, let alone presenters. Steve Jobs shattered that mold, with a dynamic presence and charisma that couldresonate in an intimate auditorium, or enthrall thousands in the multi-section hall at the Worldwide Developers Conference.

At any Apple event in which he appeared, Jobs had the crowds eating from his hand. He had charisma. He had showmanship. And he had the uncanny ability to capture imaginations, and steer audiences to understand his vision. Some would derisively call it a reality distortion field, but in fact that was an apt description of the affect and impact Jobs had. As synonymous as Jobs has been with Apple—indeed, it’s hard to imagine Apple without him—the company has operated smoothly with the help of a strong management team that’s included former chief operating office and newly anointed CEO Tim Cook. But none of these faces have been spokespeople, with Jobs's developed personality or presence. Truth is, senior vice president of marketing Phil Schiller has done a creditable job in his short presentations, but he’s never left an impression with the audience in the same way as Jobs, even though he’s shared the stage with Jobs, and demoed aspects of new Apple offerings. Same goes for Cook. And for Craig Federighi, vice president of OSX software, who took the keynote stage at WWDC with Cook to introduce OSX Lion. And for Scott Forstall, senior vice president of iOS software. And so on.

Granted, before now, these folks may have been reluctant – or scared – to try and compete with Jobs on stage. But they’ve fallen flat in their impressions: They’re business managers and developers, not showmen.

Jobs is a legend with a cult following. Only he could get away with delivering his trademark “one more thing” tag line at the end of an event, teasing the last big reveal of the day. Can you imagine someone else calling a hunk of plastic and silicon magical – and getting normally rationale observers to nod in agreement?

Other consumer tech companies—Google and HP among them—have tried to mimic the finesse and vibe of Apple’s Jobs-led events. And each time, those companies, and the leaders they’ve put up on stage, have failed miserably. This year alone, Jobs’s handling of Apple’s iPad 2 launch stood head and shoulders above the rest: Google’s introduction of Android 3.0 Honeycomb and later, at Google IO, of Ice Cream Sandwich; and HP’s introduction of the now-defunct TouchPad. There was no comparison: Try as they might, the Google and HP presenters were lifeless shells, and it was hard not to notice how they were attempting, and not succeeding, to match Jobs’s showmanship. Months later, the executives who stood on stage for Google and HP have largely faded into a nameless ether. But practically everyone on the planet knew that Steve Jobs introduced the iPad 2.

That’s because, simply put, he’s Steve Jobs. And without Jobs in this important role, Apple may struggle to find its voice again.

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