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Steve Jobs, tech's last celebrity CEO

With the Apple chief's decision to step out of the spotlight at next month's Macworld Expo, an era comes to an end.

By Jon Fortt, writer
December 19, 2008: 3:47 PM ET

Steve Jobs (left) and Bill Gates long ruled tech's red carpet. Gates has stepped back and there's mounting speculation that Jobs could follow.

SAN FRANCISCO (Fortune) -- Where have all the high-flying tech CEOs gone?

This week the tech world lost another headliner when Apple (AAPL, Fortune 500) CEO Steve Jobs made it known that he'll no longer deliver his signature keynote speech at next month's Macworld Expo trade show.

Since the announcement comes the same year that Microsoft (MSFT, Fortune 500) co-founder Bill Gates gave up his traditional keynote at another high-tech extravaganza, the Consumer Electronics Show, it underscores the fact that there aren't many superstars left who can rally big crowds and carry the banner for tech.

It had to happen eventually. The sun is setting on the first generation of rebellious whiz kids who invented the PC, commercialized the Internet and grew their companies into powerhouses.

In bygone days, Gates regularly talked up his plans for world domination. Scott McNealy, the co-founder of Sun Microsystems (JAVA, Fortune 500), led a defiant rebellion against Gates and his Redmond, Wash., juggernaut. Craig Barrett, the outspoken former CEO of Intel, ushered the chipmaker's glorious entrance into the age of mobile and wireless computer.

Today, all three have stepped back from operational roles, and are more likely to champion education policy than to unveil the next must-have gadget or service. Even the sole remaining old-school tech CEO, Oracle (ORACLE)'s Larry Ellison, is keeping a lower profile these days; he's in the news for his yachts and planes as much as anything else.

Help Wanted: A few geeky CEOs

The rest of today's crop of CEOs is a different breed. As innovators like Intel and Microsoft have grown into corporate giants, they haven't looked for clones of their iconoclastic founders to take over; instead, they've looked to manager/salesmen like Intel's Paul Otellini, Microsoft's Steve Ballmer, Hewlett-Packard (HPQ, Fortune 500)'s Mark Hurd and IBM's Sam Palmisano.

These guys are uber managers, not tech visionaries. They may be business-school rock stars, but engineers don't line up for their autographs.

Given the way companies mature, perhaps it's only natural that the current crop of CEOs looks different from the last. It takes one set of skills to think up a brilliant new idea, motivate starry-eyed recruits and inspire investors. It takes an entirely different set to manage thousands of employees, glad-hand customers and placate Wall Street; and it's rare to find all those skills in one person.

Are there any leaders left with geek cred? Sure - Web 2.0 celebrities like Google (GOOG, Fortune 500)'s Eric Schmidt, Sergey Brin, and Larry Page, and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg have plenty - but none of them could be mistaken for inspirational speakers. Likewise, Adobe's Shantanu Narayen and AMD's Dirk Meyer have impressive engineering chops, but they seem more comfortable in the lab than on the stage.

In the end, the guy best suited to draw a crowd and speak for tech is probably Michael Dell - but Dell Inc. (DELL, Fortune 500) is in such rough shape that he won't have much time for speeches.

Which brings us back to Steve Jobs. So as long as he remains at the helm of Apple and its products stay popular, we're not likely to miss his Macworld keynote too much - when he has something to say, he'll figure out ways to draw a crowd. The question is what happens when His Steveness steps away from the company, or when its products are no longer the toast of the town.

When that happens - and it's a matter of when, not if - we may all get wistful about the good old days of the Macworld keynote, when the techies of the world huddled like kids on Christmas, and expected to be blown away. To top of page

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