Mark Zuckerberg, the next Steve Jobs?

September 23, 2011: 10:28 AM ET

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg showed marked improvement at his keynote during this week's f8 conference. With Jobs retired, could this social networking confab take the spotlight away from Apple?

By Dan Mitchell, contributor

Mark-ZuckerbergFORTUNE -- Just a couple of years ago, Mark Zuckerberg made few public appearances. When he did appear before a crowd, he often drew snarky criticism for his difficulty expressing himself. As an ubergeek, he's still an unlikely public speaker.  And yet his keynote at Thursday's f8 conference shows how far he's come and -- more to the point -- how much more willing people are to accept and even idolize him. It's amazing what a little time and a few billion dollars can do.

Now that Steve Jobs has handed over the reins to another, can Mark Zuckerberg take his place as the tech world's, forgive me, rock star? It seems unlikely that he'll ever match Jobs in terms of delivering the mystery and gravitas that made Apple (AAPL) keynotes appointment viewing. There may still be too much Professor Frink in him. Indeed, as a public speaker, Zuckerberg is often still too much like the character Frink was based on: The Nutty Professor. Not the Eddie Murphy Nutty Professor -- the Jerry Lewis Nutty Professor. The funny one. The brainiac lacking in social skills.

Steve Jobs has never been a particularly good public speaker himself. He electrified audiences not with oratory, but with pacing and a slowly building sense of drama. He's as big a geek as Zuckerberg, but of a different type: the hypercritical, even sometimes nasty type. With his dark eyes and mane of dark hair, he was sort of bad-boy dreamy in the '70s and '80s when he was establishing himself. His uncompromising dedication to quality and his reputation for being something of a tyrant shot through like electricity.

As he grew into himself, he got much better at public speaking until he became downright inspirational, and indisputably the tech industry's (really, please forgive me) rock star. He became Nutty Professor alter-ego Buddy Love. Not the Eddie Murphy Buddy Love -- the Jerry Lewis Buddy Love. The cocky one who we nevertheless felt compelled to watch and admire.

Zuckerberg, who reportedly has some of his own jerky qualities, might well be the one to take Jobs' place as Top Geek. But it won't be the same. Besides the differences between the two men, there's also this: Apple's products are things of beauty. They're objects that we can handle and admire. Facebook's great and all but nobody's ever going to refer to it as "beautiful." Apple's products, along with Jobs' personality traits, are what gave him the gravitas that made his keynotes Momentous Events, with all eyes on Steve. (Not to mention, Apple's announcements tend to wow, whereas Facebook's tend to rile.)

Zuckerberg doesn't have that advantage. Still, no other candidates seem likely to take Jobs' place. Zuckerberg might never be Buddy Love, but he might be able to become an inspirational figure in his own right. He's on his way already. He's still prosaic where Jobs is poetic, but he's starting to learn to appeal to people's aspirations, not just their pedestrian desires for convenience.

At the end of his f8 speech Zuckerberg said: "We exist at the intersection of technology and social issues." Slightly clunky, but on the right track. Maybe in another year or two, he'll be able to manage something like what Jobs said in wrapping up his speech introducing the iPad 2 in March: "It's in Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enough. It's technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities that yields the results that makes our hearts sing."

He may never be able to pull off saying something like that. But, we'll take what we can get.

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