NORMALLY, if the busy CEO of a company doesn't give the keynote address at a trade show, it barely warrants a mention outside the specialist press. But when it's Steve Jobs, the main man at Apple, and the annual trade show is this month's Macworld Expo, the absence is enough to wipe billions off share prices, set blogs buzzing, inspire acres of newsprint and become the lead item on television news broadcasts throughout the US.
Jobs, who is worth $5.4bn and was last year named as the most powerful businessman in the world by Fortune Magazine, is no ordinary chief executive. He is synonymous with Apple in a way that no other major businessman – with the possible exception of Sir Richard Branson at Virgin – can match. The 53-year-old is also a sick man, having survived a bout of pancreatic cancer, a condition that is usually terminal, in 2004. So when the autocratic head of Apple appeared gaunt and ailing last year, the rumour mill went into overdrive.
Not that this would matter were Apple an ordinary business – but it's not. Last year, on the back of the Macbook, iMac, iPod, iPhone and iTunes, it overtook Google as the biggest beast in Silicon Valley. By common consent, this is almost completely down to Jobs's marketing nous, personality and dedication to accessible ergonomic technology.
Apple is almost unique in having no structure in place to replace Jobs. The lack of a chosen successor is an implicit acknowledgement that the company's founder is the company. That would be an oversight in any organisation, but for one that is worth $92bn, employs 20,000 people, turns over $25bn a year and posts an annual profit of $3.5bn, it's a state of affairs that concerns the whole of America.
It didn't help when, last September, the respected financial news agency Bloomberg accidentally published Jobs's obituary, giving him the opportunity to say that "rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated". Yet with the share price dipping by 45% in six months on the back of fears about Jobs's health and investors taking issue with Apple's assertion that his condition is "a private matter", he was forced to make a statement.
"As many of you know," he wrote to the 'Macolyte' community, "I have been losing weight throughout 2008. Fortunately, my doctors think they have found the cause – a hormone imbalance that has been 'robbing' me of the proteins my body needs to be healthy. It will take me until late this spring to regain (the lost weight, but] I will continue as Apple's CEO during my recovery." The company's shares immediately leapt by 4%.
It's easy to see why the markets hold Jobs in such high regard. He started Apple with uber-geeky hacker and workmate Steve Wozniak in 1976, but it isn't his only success story. In 1986 he bought the start-up company The Graphics Group (later renamed Pixar) from Star Wars mogul George Lucas for $10m, selling it to Disney 20 years later for $7.4bn after hits that started with Toy Story and included A Bug's Life, Monsters Inc and Cars, as well as the Oscar-winning Finding Nemo and The Incredibles. The 2006 buy-out of Pixar also gave Jobs 7% of Disney's shares, making him the iconic company's biggest single shareholder.
But if Jobs is good at making money, making friends doesn't come as naturally. In fact, making enemies seems far easier, as he's proved with a succession of very public slanging matches, such as those with former Disney CEO Michael Eisner and Dell founder Michael Dell. In 1985, with the home computer market saturated, Mac sales dwindling and Jobs under pressure, his capacity for alienating those around him came to the fore. Things eventually got so bad that Jobs gave the company's board an ultimatum: make him CEO instead of John Sculley, the experienced hand he headhunted from PepsiCo, or Jobs would walk. In the end, Jobs was so disruptive that in mid-1985 the board told Sculley to sack him. That was the start of almost 11 years away from Apple until the company bought Next, Jobs' new computer company in late 1996 for $429m and reinstalled Jobs on Apple's board. True to form, Jobs orchestrated a boardroom coup within months, replacing Apple CEO Gil Amelio in July 1997.
While he is driven, persuasive and charismatic, Jobs also has a reputation as a demanding, erratic and temperamental personality, who at one stage was notorious for firing employees he met in the lift or on the escalator. His unofficial biographers Jeff Young and William Simon put his macho management style down to his upbringing in California by adoptive father Paul Jobs, a large and aggressive repo man.
Jobs took exception to Young and Simon's book iCon, banning every title by their publishers from Apple's network of shops. It's the sort of action that led one Forbes writer to characterise him as a narcissistic jerk and Fortune magazine to describe him as "one of Silicon Valley's leading egomaniacs". His habit of suing small websites for leaking details of unreleased products has consolidated his reputation as a thin-skinned control freak.
Not that Jobs is one-dimensional. After taking a summer job at Atari when he dropped out of Reed College (having learned little apart from the appreciation of calligraphy that was a cornerstone of Apple's success), he backpacked around India and experimented with drugs, particularly LSD. Wozniak remembers Jobs coming back from India with his head shaved, wearing Indian clothing and having converted to Buddhism, to which he still adheres. "Steve was into everything hippy," says Wozniak. "He ran around shouting 'free love, man' and eating seeds."
Yet there is no doubt that he has a ruthless streak, revealed in both his private and public lives. He now has three daughters with wife Laurene Powell, but when an early girlfriend become pregnant he said he was sterile and denied paternity, only later recanting. As recently as September, Jobs and fellow directors were forced by a San Jose judge to pay back $14m in "irregular options payments", with costs of $9m, while Apple had to take a $84m hit.
That's small change to Apple. Almost bust several times in the past 20 years, it now has $25bn in the bank and no debts thanks to Jobs's belief that customers will pay a premium for products that look good and are relatively easy to use. In the last three months of 2008 alone, that philosophy helped Apple sell 2.61 million computers, 11 million iPods and 6.9 million iPhones.
Jobs continues to drive Apple forward by remaining ahead of the game. There are rumours of an iWatch. "There's an old Wayne Gretzky quote that I love," said Jobs of a favourite ice hockey player. "It is: 'I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been'."
YOU'VE BEEN GOOGLED:
• Music obsessive Jobs went out with Joan Baez, largely because she had gone out with Bob Dylan.
• Tim Berners-Lee wrote the software for the web on a computer made by Next, the company set up by Jobs after he was fired by Apple in 1985.
• Jobs' favourite band is The Beatles, hence his company's name. A long trademark battle with The Beatles' record company, Apple Corps, over use of the word "apple" to sell music was only recently settled.
• In 1984, Jobs purchased Jackling House, a 14-bedroom Spanish colonial mansion in California. He lived in it for 10 years despite the only piece of furniture in the living room being an old BMW motorbike.
• Jobs is rarely seen in public without a black, long-sleeved turtleneck made by St Croix, Levi's 501s and New Balance 992 trainers.
• Jobs described his LSD phase as "one of the two or three most important things (I have] done in (my] life".