Apple Without Its Core

What will the company be like in Steve Jobs’ absence?

On Wednesday afternoon, Steve Jobs announced he was taking a leave of absence from Apple until June, as his health problems were “more complex” than he’d previously let on. Last week, Farhad Manjoo reported from a Jobs-less Macworld conference, where he got a glimpse of Apple’s not-so-thrilling future without the legendary CEO.

Phil Schiller, senior vice president of marketing for Apple

Just before the holidays, Apple announced that CEO Steve Jobs would not deliver the keynote address at Macworld, the annual conference that he’s long used as a platform for his flashiest product announcements. The company’s terse press release made Apple-watchers suspicious about the company’s motives. Jobs, a cancer survivor, hasn’t looked great lately—he’s skinny, his voice sounds thin, and at recent events, he has, uncharacteristically, given much of the stage time to subordinates. Last week, an anonymous source told Gizmodo that Jobs’ health was “rapidly declining” and that the Macworld pullout was Apple’s way of reducing his presence at the company—preparation, the source implied, for Jobs’ imminent death. In response, Jobs posted a letter claiming that he was suffering from a hormone imbalance and that doctors expected a full recovery within a few months. For now, Jobs remains CEO, which is fortunate for all involved: On Tuesday, we got a glimpse of what Apple would look like without him, and it wasn’t good.

Taking Jobs’ place at Macworld was Phil Schiller, the company’s senior vice president of marketing and one of Jobs’ top lieutenants. Schiller is a familiar presence at Apple events—he’s the big, smiling fellow who gets called on to assist when the head honcho needs to demonstrate something cool on the iPhone. Schiller seems as if he’d be a natural as CEO: He’s charismatic, he has command of every product detail, and he’s also proved able to articulate the company’s bigger-picture goals. Yet watching him give a State of the Apple address was like puzzling over a Zune after spending years with an iPod—all the same basic functions are there, but the experience is somehow naggingly dull and awkward.

Part of Schiller’s problem was a lack of good material—he had nothing grand to announce. Previous Macworlds gave us the iPhone, dazzling new iMacs, and the MacBook Air. This year we got a new MacBook Pro in the same style as other laptops Apple has been selling for months, plus updated versions of several programs, including the company’s photo management, movie-editing, and productivity apps. Schiller also announced that Apple had convinced record labels to drop copy-restriction schemes on all songs sold in the iTunes store—in other words, iTunes has now caught up to Amazon’s unrestricted music store.

But it wasn’t only that Schiller had nothing great up his sleeve; he also lacked his boss’s ethereal style. Jobs has a gift for spinning mere product announcements into rich narratives about a newer, more advanced way of life. He speaks slowly and plainly but with undisguised awe at the power of his company’s innovations. Take a look at him unveiling the iPhone at Macworld 2007; in this clip, he explains why it makes much more sense for a mobile device to have a flexible touchscreen keyboard than the hard keys found on competitors’ products. In five minutes, he eviscerates the logic behind every other device: “What happens if you think of a great idea six months from now? You can’t turn around and add a button to those things—they’ve already shipped!” Steering clear of jargon, he goes over the clear benefits of his alternative—benefits like “works like magic!”

And finally, there’s what an ad-man would call “the reveal.” He pulls out the device, then reveals its showiest features—flicking a finger across the screen to scroll down a list of music, pinching it to zoom in on an image, flipping the phone on its side to show how it automatically shifts between portrait and landscape mode. Jobs is given to superlatives and simple, powerful declarations of awesomeness—”phenomenal,” “the best,” and “boom!” seem to be his favorite words. His excitement is infectious. By the end of any Jobs keynote, you’re ready to open your wallet.

There are people who find this style off-putting. It’s a mainstay of Apple criticism that Jobs is merely a showman, not a technologist, and that his success has as much to do with skillful press management as with actual innovation. Whatever you make of the carping, it’s certainly true that Jobs’ style is central to the company’s brand and the fierce connection it forges with its customers. His product announcements prompt hundreds of millions of dollars worth of free press coverage and whip up greater and more loyal fans, generating ever-greater interest in the company. At several Macworld keynotes, I’ve witnessed dangerous stampedes on the escalators and in the aisles. Most corporations beg you to buy their products. Apple’s customers beg the company to let them have whatever it is they happen to be selling this quarter.

At some point, all that will end. Jobs will eventually leave the company. There are no obvious plans for succession; in addition to Schiller, observers finger Tim Cook, Apple’s COO, and Scott Forstall, who helped develop Mac OS X and the iPhone’s software, as contenders for the job. But Tuesday’s keynote illustrated how difficult it will be for any of those guys to replace Jobs. As Schiller spoke, the response was more country club than rock concert; people appreciated some of his announcements, but you got the sense they were clapping to be polite. There were long stretches when I had nothing better to do than to surf the Web on my iPhone. (Thanks, Steve!) There was nothing unique about his style, nothing to keep the audience rapt. The entire affair reminded me of countless presentations I’ve been to by other execs. Apple without Steve Jobs, it seems, will be just like Microsoft or Oracle, an ordinary tech firm with perfectly adequate products and no sizzle.

This year marks Apple’s last at Macworld. The conference is produced by the media company IDG, not by Apple itself, and in the same press release announcing that Jobs wouldn’t participate this year, the company noted that “trade shows have become a very minor part of how Apple reaches its customers.” There are good reasons for the firm to skip Macworld. The event takes place in January, an odd time to announce new products, and Apple can command the world’s press to its events at a moment’s notice, setting its own timeline for releasing new things.

But Macworld isn’t just a trade show. Spurred by excitement over Jobs’ keynotes, the event is a kind of pilgrimage, a time for Apple-lovers to revel in their unabashed fandom. After the keynote I wandered around the expo hall talking to Apple-istas who’d come to mark the end of an era. Several exhibitors told me they hadn’t made up their minds about whether to sign up for next year, saying that Apple is shrouded in even more mystery than usual these days. The big question for the company’s fans and investors: What happens to a cult without a leader?