The big tech news today is Apple's expected unveiling of new iPod music players. How pedestrian. The subtext is far more gripping: The inevitable end of the Steve Jobs era at Apple, and whether it's yet upon us.

Will Apple's CEO, recently recovering from a liver transplant, step onto an Apple stage today, or won't he? The company isn't saying anything, but the consensus in the press is that he won't:

  • Brad Stone of the New York Times: "With Mr. Jobs still convalescing from a liver transplant - and this being a somewhat minor news event - an appearance seems unlikely."
  • Joseph Menn of the Financial Times: "But most analysts aren't expecting him this time around, in part because he is still recovering from a liver transplant that followed his bout with pancreatic cancer and in part because they don't think Apple has anything truly tremendous to roll out."
  • John Gruber of Daring Fireball: "I hope he's up on stage doing his thing, but my gut still says no, that he's done as the company's spokesman."

So, wait a minute: Steve Jobs, the longtime face of Apple Inc., isn't going to run this little show, even though two publications, including the Wall Street Journal, say he is well enough to obsessively shepherd the development of a tablet device? Even though he's apparently driving himself to work again? And even though he's a control freak, famous for treating those around him at Apple like inept bozos? And even though he ran the same iPod event last year?

Sure, it's possible Jobs has carved out a brand-new role for himself at Apple as the behind-the-scenes product shepherd, and is skipping public events, at least until he has bulked back up again and appears more healthy. But if that's the case, Apple is going to have to pay in two big ways, neither of which Wall Street will be thrilled about: First, less free product hype in the press, since Phil Schiller lacks Jobs' charisma and fan base. Second, less transparency about the state of Jobs' health, since he's out of the public eye.

Indeed, the context of the Jobs health scare will make it harder for Apple investors to swallow the idea that Jobs would skip this event because it's too small time. The CEO knows his health is a longstanding issue on Wall Street, and he knows this event is one opportunity to allay concerns. If he's a no-show, some investors are going to see that through the prism of health and assume, at the very least, the he doesn't appear well enough, at the moment, to walk onto a stage.

There's also the remote possibility that Jobs will show, that Apple's led people to believe, or allowed them to believe, that he'll be absent in order to maximize the positive buzz when he actually shows up.

Whatever happens today with regard to the Apple CEO and his products, a new chapter will have unfurled in the great Steve Jobs Psychodrama, and Apple obsessives will have new information about their Dear Leader — he showed and looked like ______, or, more likely, he didn't show as expected — which they can spin in innumerable ways.

UPDATE: Jobs made a surprise appearance on stage.

(Pic: Jobs at a special iPod event September 9, 2008. Getty Images.)