When several Apple bloggers called attention to Steve Jobs' gaunt appearance at last Monday's WWDC keynote, we were reminded of a fact few wish to face: Steve Jobs will not head Apple forever.
Some speculated Jobs could be suffering a relapse of the pancreatic cancer for which he had surgery in 2004. An Apple spokeswoman gave The Wall Street Journal the explanation that Jobs merely had a "common bug" and was taking antibiotics.
The story percolated on Apple-related blogs as well as financial blogs, contributing to a 7 percent drop in AAPL. (The stock fell $4.03 the day of the keynote but closed at $185.64 on Tuesday. From there it slid $13.27 to close at $172.37 on Friday. Analyst excitement this week over prospects for the 3G iPhone has pushed AAPL back to the $180 range.)
The severe reaction – both from the Apple faithful and Wall Street – illustrates how vital Steve Jobs is to the ongoing success of Apple Inc.
He is arguably the most celebrated CEO in America. Because of his "rock star" persona, his legendary ability to elicit great products from those who serve under him and his skill at manipulating the media, Jobs is as much a celebrity as a businessman.
Detractors may deride Jobs as an egotistical tyrant unworthy of the accolades but one need only look at Apple's history to see the man's impact on the company. Over its 32-year existence, only the years Jobs was absent – 1985 to 1997 -- did Apple struggle.
So every time even a whiff of a hint arises that something might force Jobs out of his CEO post, both Apple fans and stockholders alike break out the worry beads.
The last time this happened, it wasn't Jobs' health but his role in a stock backdating scandal that had people contemplating a Jobs-less Apple. Concern over that incident buffeted AAPL stock for months.
Like most fans of Apple, I'm also a fan of Steve Jobs and all he has achieved. I pray he just lost a few pounds fighting a cold in recent weeks.
But the reality is someday he will leave Apple, whether it's for health reasons or some other unforeseeable event. What then?
At first not much would change, apart from the stock plummeting. A new CEO would be named from a list of potential successors.
Apple would continue selling cool products. High-ranking Apple execs like Senior Vice President for Industrial Design Jonathan Ive and Senior Vice President for Worldwide Product Marketing Phil Schiller would do their best to keep Apple's winning streak alive.
But as time goes on, Apple will falter without Steve Jobs. No successor could have Jobs' unique combination of charisma, steel will, exceptional vision and instinct for knowing which products to shun and which to pursue.
Without Steve at the helm to reject mediocrity while imposing his will on both employees and business partners, Apple will backslide from an extraordinary company to an ordinary one.
Hit products will come less regularly. The media won't hang on every announcement. Apple won't be special.
Contrast that to the situation at Microsoft. Bill Gates will retire June 27 from the company he founded after having ceded control to Steve Ballmer in 2000. As much as Gates has meant to Microsoft, his long goodbye means his departure won't devastate the company.
Jobs' controlling personality never would permit a gradual transition of power. Can anyone imagine Jobs submitting to the authority of a successor as he makes a slow and graceful exit?
No, when Jobs leaves Apple – whatever the cause -- it will be sudden and traumatic. I dread that day and hope it doesn't come for a very, very long time.