As Steve Jobs walked gingerly back on stage at Apple's World Wide Developer Conference this past June to talk about iCloud, the denim of his faded jeans aimlessly searched for flesh, the mock black turtleneck flared where a neck should have been, but the man inside did not wither.
I don't remember much of what he said after his trademark "one more thing," but it was spoken barely above a whisper, and we giggled like schoolchildren: our treat for enduring two hours packed with information. He walked off stage, milled among friends and well-wishers, tenderly leaned his head on his wife, and just as quickly he was gone.
I couldn't help but think this might be it, the last time we'll see Jobs on stage. It turns out that two days later, he presented a new Apple headquarters to the Cupertino City Council, a farce seemingly constructed to deliver the mostly reclusive CEO to a giddy group that seemed more concerned with meeting him than conducting any real business. One council member bafflingly asked Jobs if, in return for the council's blessing, he would grant the city free WiFi. After reminding the council member that this was the city's job, he added that he thought Apple brought more to Cupertino than WiFi and iPads. You know, like tax revenue.
Certainly this isn't what a convalescing CEO wants to spend his time doing.
Apple observers say that his involvement in every company detail has hardly waned, even while on medical leave. It is difficult to envision a day where Jobs might turn his full attention and intensity on his health, wherever that may stand. But if he did, I would selfishly want him to do so ceremoniously: perhaps in part to redeem his prickly reputation, but also to inspire us one last time; not in the shadow of technology, but basking in humanity.
Right before he began to speak at Monday's keynote, as the crowd's applause subsided, someone yelled "We love you, Steve." We don't really know him, though, do we? Can you know a man through his life's work, the output of his efforts? Can you know his heart from the iPad 2 or the iPhone 4 or the APIs for iOS 5? No. Not even from the Newton and the NeXT and the iPhone death grip.
I selfishly want him to create his own exit, on his own terms, and then bare his soul. In my head the script reads something like this:
The Scene: Moscone Convention Center, San Francisco California. Clouds loom. The National Guard helps San Francisco police route traffic north of Market and around practically a square mile of city streets. Getting to Howard and 4th is now impossible on this Tuesday morning, and Jobs isn't even speaking until Wednesday. The normal broadcast trucks are parked along Howard, but they stretch all the way to 7th street. The Oprah Winfrey Network has squatted on prime real estate; CNN had to set up an outdoor studio in front of Starbucks near Mission.
Wednesday morning: SFO experiences flight delays, but not because of weather. It turns out the airport has been overrun with private jets, ushering in everyone from Michael Jordan to Bill Gates to Warren Buffet. Apple co-Founder Steve Wozniak had trouble getting an invitation. Apple fan boys march outside Moscone uniformly, iPads propped above their heads, together forming a gigantic digital sign which reads "I Heart Steve." Occasionally they each have to hit the power button when one goes to sleep.
Inside, celebrities and bloggers from around the world nervously make sure they are seen. Bob Dylan's "Every Grain of Sand" plays endlessly in the background.
The moment arrives. In a stunning surprise, former Apple CEO John Sculley, the man who once fired Jobs, rambles on stage. He will say a few words. Very few: "I fired Steve. It was the biggest mistake of my life. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Steve Jobs."
Jobs emerges, this time in a white turtleneck, smiling and bright. If it's possible, he is more frail than ever, but his energy is palpable. He sits in a lone stool on the stage, thanks everyone for coming. For two hours (and it seems like 20 minutes), Jobs talks about innovation, about the early days, about what he learned, about his childhood. He talks of Pixar and NeXT and Apple, but he talks about what he put into them, and, ultimately, what he personally took from each. This is a rare glimpse beneath the "brains and sinew," and we now see the software inside, and maybe as close as we'll ever get to his soul.
Jobs has been at the center of almost every modern-day Apple announcement, and despite his brisk hand-offs to top lieutenants like iOS leader Scott Forstall, or designer Jonathan Ive, or trusted CFO Tim Cooke, or marketing chief Phillip Schiller, it's difficult to separate the company from the man. At Google I/O, Google engineering VP Vic Gundotra played host and master of ceremony. Andy Rubin, head of Google's mobile strategy, is a sought-after speaker. In fact, there is a long list of emerging stars at Google; co-founder Sergey Brin was relegated to being a panelist at a press session on Chrome.
So it is at this point that while Jobs is talking, stage hands quietly bring up new chairs in the dark alongside the Apple CEO. One by one Jobs' lieutenants come up and he introduces each, telling us personal stories about them and going into detail about what each has accomplished, their place inside of Apple. Jobs brings up the last one and by now it's clear that he is finally able to publicly share the credit for Apple's success; he is relishing in it. Along the way, from Apple to NeXT to Pixar back to Apple, he says, there is, above all, the lesson of collaboration.
Cooke seizes the spotlight for a moment, and begins to tell the audience what he's learned from Jobs; each executive then takes a turn doing the same.
And now it's back to Jobs. He talks about his personal battles, but provides few real details, only saying that he has accomplished everything he has needed to, and that he is confident that Apple, the company, will continue on its current, dominant path without him. It is time to power down.
"One last thing," he says, as a hush falls over the crowd. Chills. Nobody moves. He announces his successor, already approved by Apple's board. Together they announce that everyone in attendance will get an iPhone 5, his parting gift. The phone includes a video series on innovation, starring Jobs; and a free copy of an autobiography, which he has been secretly been working on -- the single technology book we have all always wanted. He stands to thundering applause, and walks off.
As he approaches the edge of the stage, he jumps high, clicks up his heels, and lets go a laugh. It is a laugh of joy.
Fritz Nelson is the editorial director for InformationWeek and the Executive Producer of TechWebTV. Fritz writes about startups and established companies alike, but likes to exploit multiple forms of media into his writing.
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