The end of the Silicon Valley celebrity CEO?

December 18, 2008, 1:26 PM UTC
Attendees settle in before Steve Jobs’ final Macworld keynote in January 2008. Photo: Jon Fortt

It’s tempting to say it’s no big deal that Apple is ditching the Macworld Expo. Yes, Steve Jobs has used Macworld stages to introduce the iPhone, the Macbook Air, the iBook and a slew of other objects of techno-lust. But Jobs doesn’t need Macworld to get attention. Mr. Innovation could have invited the press to a bowling alley in Fresno to unveil new technology, and a crowd would still show up.

But this actually is a big deal. Fueled by Apple’s recent success, Jobs’s San Francisco Macworld keynote had become the industry’s most remarkable marketing event. Journalists from around the world, drawn by star power and the force of tradition, gathered annually to hear Jobs set the agenda for consumer technology.

It’s true that over the years Apple has developed alternate venues to get its message out; there’s the Worldwide Developer Conference before the back-to-school season, an iPhone event in the spring or summer, an iPod event in September, and one or two more. But Macworld was the big splash — the one time when press and analysts gathered at Apple’s doorstep without having to be invited.

Are things different without a Jobs keynote at Macworld? In the short term, barely. There just aren’t many superstars left running companies these days, now that folks like Microsoft founder (MSFT) Bill Gates and former Intel CEO (INTC) Craig Barrett have stepped back from operational roles. There are folks like Mark Hurd of Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) and Sam Palmisano of IBM (IBM), but they’re known more as uber managers than as tech geniuses.

There’s Oracle founder Larry Ellison, but Joe Sixpack has no idea what Oracle (ORCL) does. Then there are the Web 2.0 celebrities – Eric Schmidt, Sergey Brin, and Larry Page at Google (GOOG), and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg – but none of them could be mistaken for inspirational speakers. So as long as Steve Jobs is still at the helm of Apple, and as long as Apple’s products remain popular, the tech community will gather when he’s got something to say.

The question is what happens when His Steveness steps away from the company, or when Apple’s products are no longer the toast of the town. When that happens — and it’s a matter of when, not if — Apple executives may long for the bygone days of the Macworld keynote, when the techies of the world huddled like kids on Christmas, and expected to be blown away.

Subscribe to Well Adjusted, our newsletter full of simple strategies to work smarter and live better, from the Fortune Well team. Sign up today.