What we do and don't need to know about Steve Jobs's medical leave
Steve Jobs is sick again, can't do his job and needs to have his deputy fill in. That's all we know for sure from the brief statement by Jobs that Apple posted to its Web site this morning under the bland title ""Apple Media Advisory."
In it, Jobs writes that he asked Apple's board of directors for medical leave of an unstated duration. Chief operating officer Tim Cook will "be responsible for all of Apple's day to day operations," although Jobs will still "be involved in major strategic decisions." It ends with these two sentences:
I love Apple so much and hope to be back as soon as I can. In the meantime, my family and I would deeply appreciate respect for our privacy.
We've been through this before. As Cecilia Kang outlined in her post this morning, Apple's chief executive and co-founder has been through some rough patches over the last several years: one leave of absence when he had surgery for pancreatic cancer in 2004, then another in 2009 for a successful liver transplant that followed months of onlookers noting how gaunt he'd begun to appear.
Each time, Apple was slow and exceedingly selective in responding to queries. In summer 2008, a company spokesperson told the Wall Street Journal that Jobs was suffering from "a common bug," which in retrospect seems a severe understatement.
Today's 113-word statement continues that uncommunicative tradition, leaving us to guess what's gone on with Jobs. (I last saw him in person at September's event introducing the revised Apple TV; he looked twig-thin, but not more so than he had at January's iPad introduction.)
I appreciate Jobs's desire to keep his health out of the headlines. Being sick is not fun: Having to discuss your condition with strangers is even less so. It can be difficult enough to share this sort of news with friends on Facebook, much less with the Web-reading public. Jobs's $1-a-year salary (with notable benefits) does not erase those issues.
But while the details of Jobs's health are a private matter, his ability to do his job is not. He's more than Apple's chief executive -- he's the face of the highest-valued tech company in the world. He functions as its chief in-house critic, demanding constant tweaks to products; he serves as its top salesman at product launches; most recently, he's become its most popular customer-service rep, answering random e-mails from strangers about the company's products.
And Apple's other chief executives between Jobs's 1985 departure and his 1997 return -- John Sculley, Michael Spindler and Gilbert Amelio -- were not nearly as effective at the job.
Cook should be able to do an excellent job as Apple's interim head, to judge from the Compaq and IBM veteran's stewardship during the 2009 leave. But this understudy will assuredly not be performing the role of Steve Jobs. Only Steve Jobs can do that.
We don't need a Keynote presentation on what's ailing Jobs. But Apple could at least say why it doesn't know how long Jobs expects to be out, even if that requires naming a particular malady.
Yes, that kind of statement would only invite follow-up questions. But if any company can placidly ignore queries from the public, over and over and over, it's Apple.
In the same way, Apple could stand to provide a little clarity about its succession plans. At 55, Jobs is far from retirement. (Berkshire Hathaway Chief Executive Warren Buffett, a Post Co. director, didn't say he'd named a successor until he was 75.) But Jobs hasn't had a typical 55-year-old's health over the past few years, either. Apple might as well confirm the obvious and say that Cook is next in line, even if that seems a little ghoulish.
Why focus on a worst-case scenario? I heard Jobs himself say something along those lines when he gave the commencement speech at my sister-in-law's graduation from Stanford University's business school in 2005: Live and act as if you won't be around tomorrow.
But I hope he will. Be well, Mr. Jobs.
| January 17, 2011; 4:25 PM ET
Categories: Apple, The business we have chosen
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