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How Jobs' profile impacts Apple

Lisa Schmeiser | Aug. 19, 2008
There's only one employee at Apple who matters.

SAN FRANCISCO, 18 AUGUST 2008 - Apple said it had 21,600 full-time employees at the end of its 2007 fiscal year. But as far as some people who follow the company's every move are concerned, there's only one employee at Apple who matters.

"Apple is Steve Jobs," Needham & Company analyst Charles R. Wolf told the New York Times last month, "and Steve Jobs is Apple."

That point of view is not exactly out of step with the mainstream perception of Apple. For a company that sells an assortment of instantly recognizable, highly iconic products--from the iMac to the iPod to the iPhone--Apple's most recognizable asset may be its CEO.

After all, while many chief executives enjoy a measure of stature in the business world, few can match Jobs' pop culture cachet. Parodied on TV shows and comic strips, Jobs enjoys a profile so high that, in many ways, he's become synonymous with the company he runs. Product announcements aren't framed in the context of what Apple plans to unveil but rather what Jobs himself has up his sleeve.

"The perception of Jobs that he designs products in the middle of the night and builds them during the day has served [Apple] well." said Michael Gartenberg, vice president and research director at JupiterResearch.

Indeed, Jobs' notoriety gives Apple the kind of attention and press coverage that even companies larger than Apple would envy. Lots of corporations make product announcements, for example, but few can count on the blanket coverage that a Steve Jobs' keynote will generate.

But the attention has its downsides, too. Consider this summer's speculation about the Apple CEO's health, which boiled over in the wake of Jobs' gaunt appearance at June's Worldwide Developers Conference. Even Apple's quarterly conference call with financial analysts--normally a setting for dry questions about Apple's supply chain and profit margins--included questions about the CEO's health. The reason? In some people's minds, the health of Apple and its CEO are not separate issues.

Setting aside the debate about the responsibilities of public companies to disclose the health status of their executives, it's worth exploring the massive shadow that Apple's most prominent employee casts over everything the company does.

Even asking the question "Can Apple survive without Steve Jobs?" is a testament to the strength of the perception that Apple's fate rises and falls with Steve Jobs--and raises the question of whether Apple should begin debunking that idea.

"It's more effort than it's worth," said Pacific Crest Securities analyst Andy Hargreaves. "People look at Steve Jobs in a lot of different ways being a good CEO, being a good innovator, being the messiah. Most of those perceptions are hard to shake."


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