Steve Jobs: miraculous comeback of a computing demigod

Steve Jobs, the sneaker-clad, former hippy and CEO of Apple, is returning to lead his flock after a period of medical leave, involving a liver transplant.

Halleluja, halleluja, he is risen. Blasphemous, maybe. But it's a fair summary of the Apple faithful's reaction to news that Steve Jobs is returning to lead his flock after a period of medical leave, involving a liver transplant. Jobs calls Apple products "art, science, religion all rolled up into one". To true believers, this sneaker-clad, former hippy is indeed a demigod, says The Observer. His public appearances are "regularly likened to religious revivalist meetings", and Apple fans often liken the Jobs life story humble birth, rise and fall, then miraculous comeback to those of Odysseus, Jason, Krishna and Christ.

Almost everyone has an opinion on Jobs, says Time. But no one really knows him. "I wish Bill Gates well," Jobs once said. "I only wish that at some time in his life he had dropped acid or spent time at an ashram." It was a typically waspish line, hinting at Gates's deficiencies, while proclaiming his own spiritual and counter-cultural superiority. In the battle between Microsoft and Apple, says The Sunday Telegraph, Jobs always made it personal.

A Buddhist vegetarian he may be, but he's certainly "not all peace and love". As one Valley pundit observes: "If there was an assembly of [everyone] he has alienated, they'd need a stadium to accommodate the mob." Within Apple, being on the receiving end of his wrath is so common it's called "being Steved". Jobs makes decisions "by engaging in hand-to-hand intellectual combat", writes Leander Kahney in Inside Steve's Brain. Yet somehow he never loses his mystique.

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

The product of an affair between a Syrian political scientist and one of his students, Jobs was born in San Francisco and adopted at birth by a blue-collar family. He dropped out of school, went to India and returned to team up with an old friend, Steve Wozniak, to launch Apple Computer in 1976. The Apple I and Apple II were Wozniak's babies: Jobs's genius was to market them (pricing the first computer at a $666.66 was an early flourish). They stormed the market. By 1980, when Apple went public, both were millionaires.

Jobs's later battles with the 'Suits' on the Apple board ended in his 1985 ousting. Yet his "wilderness period" was hardly barren; among other achievements, he revolutionised animation with Pixar (Toy Story, Finding Nemo), selling out to Disney for £4.1bn. His 1998 return to a moribund Apple is the stuff of legend, says He walked in and said: "Tell me, what's wrong with this place? It's the products. The products suck! There's no sex in them." Cue a stream of blockbusters culminating in the ground-breaking iPod and iPhone.

The opening of Bloomberg's mistakenly published obituary describes Jobs as the man who "helped make personal computers as easy to use as telephones, changed the way animated films are made, persuaded consumers to tune into digital music and refashioned the mobile".

The obituary has probably acted as a spur. "Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose... There is no reason not to follow your heart." For Jobs, notes The Guardian, that will always be Apple.

Could Apple survive without Jobs?

You don't have to be a disciple to take more than a passing interest in Steve Jobs's health, says The Guardian. The fear that 'Steve Jobs is Apple' has been rattling investors ever since he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2004. In December, Apple's stock rose "simply on unconfirmed reports that Jobs had been spotted looking well at his favourite frozen yoghurt outlet in Palo Alto". Conversely, when an inaccurate blog reported he had suffered a heart attack, so did Apple shares. No wonder the company has been digging itself "deeper and deeper into a pit of secrecy" on the subject of medical bulletins.

The problem of "the supreme leader" is hardly confined to Apple, says The Times. Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway vehicle is suffering similar succession anxieties and the boards of many firms from the Body Shop to EasyJet have suffered damaging rows with their founding geniuses. In an ideal world a strong brand, properly handled, will survive any individual, however gifted. And Jobs is the first to argue that the best firms are collective efforts anyway.

"Good artists copy, great ones steal," he says, quoting Picasso. Yet Apple is a special case precisely because of Jobs's magpie tendencies, says The Economist. He may not design the products, but he "is the glue that holds the talent underneath them together". Apple's magic is part design, part engineering, part logistics and part vision.

Jobs a micro-manager extraordinaire gets involved with all these aspects. But "the vision thing" belongs entirely to him. Investors are right to worry that, without him, all the other pieces "and the magic" may become unglued.