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Why Steve Jobs Emceed Another iPad Pep Rally

Apple’s CEO emerges from medical leave to headline the company’s big event. What does it mean?

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For many Apple-gazers, the most notable aspect of Wednesday’s iPad 2 launch wasn’t any particular feature of the upgraded device. Nor was it the fact that Apple was launching a v2 less than 12 months after it unveiled the first version of its new tablet; it was the command performance by the person who made it: CEO Steve Jobs.

A little less than two months ago, Jobs, who had a liver transplant in 2009, told Apple staffers he was stepping out of day-to-day operations to focus on his health. While he did say he would stay involved in the company’s strategic direction, Wednesday’s launch would have nevertheless been a perfect moment to demonstrate that the company could do just fine without him.

There are at least four possible reasons Apple decided to go with Jobs as their pitchman. Two of them don’t bode well for the company. One could be promising. And one is, well, you decide.

Possible Reason #1: No one at Apple can sell as well as Jobs

As excellent as Apple’s products are–and certainly, there’s lots to love about the new iPad 2–part of the secret of Apple’s success is in the sizzle. Apple launches are tightly controlled and highly choreographed events, seemingly designed to generate a certain degree of euphoria among Mac aficionados and the people who cover them.

Much of the credit for creating the excitement is due to Jobs himself. It’s hard to resist Jobs’s infectious enthusiasm. On Wednesday, as he moved about the stage unveiling feature after feature, he repeatedly exclaimed, “This is just so cool!” It didn’t come across as the kind of wooden pandering you get from many CEOs. You genuinely walk away believing Jobs has spent the past 12 months drooling over the plans for the iPad 2, as giddy as a school boy anticipating Christmas.

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Compare that, for example, to the styles of some of the other executives presenting on Wednesday. One gave the more stilted type of performance typical of many leaders when pitching to the public. Another seemed to let nerves get the better of him; when he started to speak, words spilled out in a continuous stream as if he were a teenager reciting a poem for a school assignment. Neither evoked the enthusiasm that Jobs did.

All of which doesn’t bode well for Apple. The company will do just fine without Jobs. But “just fine” has never been what the company was about, at least not since Jobs returned.

Possible Reason #2: Apple was concerned about the effect of a Jobs absence

Without a doubt, the markets would not have reacted kindly were Jobs nowhere to be seen Wednesday. Much would have been read into it, none of it good. It’s possible that the company, cognizant of the context in which it operates, simply decided to have Jobs do the launch, rather than risk the repercussions.

Possible Reason #3: Jobs is actually doing quite well and in no danger of imminent demise

The announcement six weeks ago provoked enormous speculation about the state of Jobs’s health. Many news outlets started updating their obituaries, a couple of pandering outlets showed paparazzi video of Jobs looking less than steady on his feet for a moment, and plenty copy (including here) was devoted to imagining an Apple without its CEO.

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The fact that Jobs made the announcement Wednesday may simply indicate that he is doing just dandy, thank you very much. And indeed, other than looking a bit more gaunt than his previously gaunt self, Jobs didn’t seem particularly fragile on stage. His voice was energetic, and his gait was strong. So it’s entirely possible that, despite his step back from daily dealings at the Cupertino campus, Jobs is all-in-all in decent health and planning to stick around for quite a while.

(However, following the event, after Jobs descended to the floor to hobnob with notables, Apple PR folks wouldn’t let Fast Company take a picture of him from up-close, proffering only the explanation that “the event is over.”)

Possible Reason #4: Jobs simply enjoys doing launches

Without a doubt, Jobs enjoys his role as showman. And deservedly so. After you’ve devoted yourself heart and soul to producing what is essentially a work of art, why wouldn’t you want to show it off? And if this kind of endeavor energizes Jobs–particularly at a time when a revitalizing dose of energy would do him good–why shouldn’t he indulge?

We can only think of one reason: Great companies can survive a transition at the top. And so, while Apple has consistently turned out great products–who can argue with 100 million smartphone sales in three-and-a-half years (one of the results Jobs announced Wednesday)–the company has yet to prove that it can sustain its results without its current leader. We aren’t necessarily advocating for Jobs to be pushed out the door any sooner than necessary. But it would be reassuring to see signs that the company could, in fact, do just as well without him, should they ever need to do so.

Read More: Most Innovative Companies: Apple

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E.B. Boyd is FastCompany.com’s Silicon Valley reporter. Twitter. Email.

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About the author

E.B. Boyd (@ebboyd) has holed up in conference rooms with pioneers in Silicon Valley and hunkered down in bunkers with soldiers in Afghanistan

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