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Without Steve Jobs, is Apple Sony?

How much has its CEO's absence affected Apple? As its latest products have stumbled out of the gate a little, David Carnoy wonders what might have been if Steve Jobs had pitched them.

Updated at 5:20 a.m. PDT with Phil Schiller keynote info.

When it was first announced that Steve Jobs was taking a leave of absence I was interviewed for an ABC affiliate about the prospects of Apple without Jobs. What would happen? Would he be missed? Was Apple vulnerable?

Sadly, I can't say that I came up with any earth-shattering sound bites. I said Apple would be fine in the short run; it had a roster full of talented executives, including a rock-star head designer (Jonathan Ive), and that the company's product road map was planned out into the future--presumably with Jobs' stamp of approval.

That said, no one could replace Steve Jobs, pitcher extraordinaire, a Sandy Koufax on the marketing mound, if there ever was one.

Reality distortion field: To Air is human. Wikimedia Commons

The fact is, no one can create a reality distortion field like Jobs. And ultimately, I said, that's what Apple would miss most, especially after Apple's senior vice president of worldwide product marketing, Phil Schiller, hadn't done much to inspire the faithful with his ho-hum keynote speech at MacWorld 2009.

However, little did I know that Jobs' absence would be felt so acutely in the release of the company's latest products, though I probably wouldn't categorize the new Mac Mini, updated iMacs, and third-generation iPod Shuffle as premium releases for Apple.

While the new releases may be a step up from Apple TV, which just hasn't been able to find a broad audience, they're not the iPod Nano or a new MacBook or iPhone OS 3.0. But what's a little disconcerting is how the products, particularly the Mac Mini and iPod Shuffle, landed with a bit a thud. Sure, they got a ton of publicity--and publicity is good--but a lot of it ranged from neutral to negative.

You have to wonder whether if Jobs had been had been on the mound, they would have gotten a better reception. Sure, the good tech pundits are supposed to ignore the marketing hype and deliver the unvarnished truth, but when Jobs presents, there's often a halo effect on the products. When he pitches, the story is not only about the products but also about the performance itself.

It's true that Apple often releases updates to product lines without any sort of event to back the release up. But you can't help but imagine what the Shuffle release would have been like if Jobs had put his spin on it.

The product would have the same flaws. However, after he got through accentuating its strengths, the flaws might not seem so great. Or they might not seem like flaws at all! That's the beauty of the reality distortion field--and a good changeup.

So how does Sony fit into all of this? Sony is also known for having beautifully designed products. But it's hit a few slumps in the past few years, and one of its big problems is not having a Jobs-like pitchman (or pitchwoman) to give those products the spin they need--and deserve.

Take the Vaio P series, the sleek little Netbook that came out not too long ago. After Jobs' performance introducing the MacBook Air, I would have loved to have seen what he could have done with the Sony Vaio P series.

Of course, Jobs wouldn't have named it the P series (come on, Sony, you can do better than that). But the point is, if you'd slapped an Apple logo over the Sony logo, given it a new name, and had Jobs roll it out, I'd bet it would be the top-selling notebook on the market today.

I'm not sure if a Jobs pitch for the Sony Reader would have been enough to keep it out in front of the Kindle, which was released after Sony's e-book reader. But you can see that Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos has studied the master and has learned a thing or two about launching tech products (and he knows that the back-end service is just as important as the product itself).

On the surface, Bezos isn't a particularly good presenter, but the combination of his charisma and the charmingly robotic quirkiness of his delivery makes the whole thing work. Yes, the Kindle 2 is a good product, but without Amazon's Apple-style marketing campaign, it wouldn't be doing nearly as well as it is.

As for Apple's future, the easy thing to say is that it's still quite bright--with or without Jobs (read Tom Krazit's post on Apple's sales numbers). But we'd be wrong to underestimate the power of the reality distortion field. Good products only get you so far.

Apple needs a Cy Young pitcher. And Sony needs one, too.