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How Much Does Steve Jobs Really Do for Apple These Days?

So it does indeed appear that Steve Jobs has returned to his CEO position at Apple. Whether part-time or full-time may not be terribly clear, but perhaps it doesn’t make much of a difference these days. You see, the real question is how much effort Jobs has really put into the company over the past five years.

In 2004, for example, Jobs temporarily relinquished his CEO duties when he underwent surgery for treatment of a rare form of pancreatic cancer. The day-to-day affairs of Apple were managed by COO Tim Cook, who is regarded as perhaps the best operations person in the business.

When Jobs took his six month medical leave early this year to prepare for and receive a liver transplant, Cook took the reins of command again, and evidently acquitted himself surprisingly well. He was confident, and Apple’s steady stream of new product introductions appears to have continued unabated. Sure, it’s certain Jobs was still being consulted via email and telephone (or iChat) for the big decisions, but it’s not as if Apple suddenly ceased to function.

Indeed, after the company’s stock dipped for a spell, it managed to bounce back to a fairly decent degree, although it’s been down recently, perhaps in response to those liver transplant reports.

The key here is that, since taking over the company over a decade ago, Jobs has filled the executive ranks with people who are not only supremely talented, but clearly in lockstep with his vision for the company. What this means in the long haul is that he probably doesn’t have to micromanage each and every decision and outcome on a day-to-day basis, thus freeing his time for more visionary pursuits.

After suffering from a serious illness, surely Jobs feels his mortality, and perhaps he would want to spend more time with friends and family, which would also go towards reducing his actual role at Apple.

Some suggest that he is grooming Cook to become the CEO in truth and not just via his regular duties. Should that be the case, Jobs could restrict his involvement to the big decisions and the public appearances, and otherwise conserve his energy as much as possible.

Once again, it’s fair to say that I’m speculating here. I’m just looking at the play of events to reach these conclusions, as I do not pretend to have top secret sources to get me information. I don’t think it’s all that difficult to judge much of what Apple is doing by their public acts, although there penchant for secrecy remains largely unaltered.

In the scheme of things, of course, I suppose our hunger for news, even of an extremely personal nature, is one of the reasons why there’s so much curiosity about Jobs these days. No other corporate executive, except perhaps Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer, can routinely generate headlines in the mainstream media, even though Jobs is far less visible on the public stage.

For those who follow Apple and care about their products, the important thing is what the board of directors is doing about the situation. Without releasing details, they supposedly have a succession plan in place, and one hopes they have demonstrated appropriate corporate responsibility and kept close tabs on their CEO’s condition and survival prospects. If they haven’t, well stockholders would have a right to complain.

On the other hand, I think there would be far less concern if Apple would have been a little more forthcoming about the matter. Yes, an executive’s illness would usually be a private affair, but not an executive who has, whether he wants to or not, become the tech industry’s rock star. The ongoing silence simply inflames the situation, and it also encourages the rise of unfounded rumors. You can see, for example, how that fake rumor that Jobs suffered a heart attack a couple of years back caused the stock price to tumble really fast.

In my not-so-humble opinion, Apple would do far better to have provided periodic updates about Jobs rather than single sentence brush-offs. I also rather suspect that his name was attached to the press release about selling more than a million new iPhones in order to restore confidence in the company and reassure everyone that Jobs is back or would be shortly.

On the other hand, a press photo showing a healthy-looking Jobs appearing for his first day of work would do wonders to still the concerns and the unfounded rumors. The way the media works these days, saying nothing only delivers more attention.

Perhaps that’s Apple’s real plan. By being secretive, they simply attract more attention. They don’t have to ask the press to come to them. They’re attracted like flies seeking little tidbits of information and speculation. If that’s the plan, well, they’ve clearly succeeded, for better or worse.

And by the way, I have to wonder about a certain media pundit who wrote an article as to whether Steve Jobs is fit to run Apple. That is the question that should have been asked about the CEOs of certain auto and financial companies instead, since Apple is successful and some of those other companies aren’t.