When Steve Jobs announced Monday morning that he was taking a third leave of absence from Apple to deal with unmentioned medical issues, the stock was poised to take a drubbing when trading resumes Tuesday; the price is already down in overseas trading. Unlike most other tech companies, Jobs is regarded as so intertwined with the success of the company he co-founded, it’s hard to imagine how it could possibly survive without him.
Lest we forget, his second medical leave, in 2009, lasted nearly six months, during which time he received a liver transplant; he was treated for pancreatic cancer during his first absence from Apple. COO Tim Cook, considered the best inventory management person in American industry, was placed in charge, and Apple’s sales continued to soar. New products were released without let-up, though it’s quite possible Jobs gave them the green light before his departure, or perhaps reviewed them during his recovery.
According to a report in The New York Times, Jobs, of late, has appeared more emaciated than ever, and has only come to the office two days at work, choosing to have his lunch in his office rather than the company cafeteria. To be fair, such reports have not been confirmed by Apple, and I don’t expect they will be. In his statement to Apple employees announcing his medical leave, Jobs stated: “My family and I would deeply appreciate respect for our privacy.”
The timing of the announcement is also curious, although it may make sense once Apple’s quarterly financials are disclosed Tuesday afternoon. For one thing, if Apple reports a record quarter, even though Jobs wasn’t present on a full-time basis during that period, it might dilute the concerns that Apple cannot possibly persevere without him. Certainly the way he restored the company to profitability makes him seem indispensable, but a lot of the hard work was performed by the people he hired, such as COO Tim Cook, head product designer Jonathan Ive, and loads of other executives and their teams. This may be why Jobs has almost always, of late, praised his employees for their hard work creating Apple’s iconic gadgets.
Of course, those privacy requests will not survive real world scrutiny. Apple is already under fire for not providing sufficient details about the health of their mercurial CEO, nor a clear-cut succession plan. Such a move, evidently to the board’s way of thinking, might cause the chosen successor to be bombarded with solicitations from rival companies. At the same time, the financial community wants to be reassured that Apple will continue to function properly if Jobs’ latest medical leave becomes permanent.
From the moment the announcement was made public, the print media and TV talking heads were busy speculating over the extent of Jobs’ illness, and the prospects for recovery. This sort of morbid discussion is typical for someone in the public eye. For Jobs, such talk occurs because he has become the most famous CEO on the planet. Apple’s path from a near-death experience to becoming the largest tech company on the planet, based on market cap, is the stuff of legend.
Now I’m not about to count Jobs out. His last medical leave resulted in talk of that nature, with all sorts of dire predictions that he wasn’t long for this world. It’s safe to say, however, that anyone who has suffered from cancer and other ills, particularly if they receive an organ transplant, will probably have ups and downs, according to what the medical experts say. Jobs is likely taking all sorts of immunosuppressant drugs to prevent rejection of that new liver, along with a cocktail of other medications, and serious side effects are likely.
It may well be that Jobs simply needs to spend a few months at home to receive the proper treatment, although he says he’ll remain CEO and will continue to be involved in Apple’s strategic decisions. Without knowing the facts behind this decision or his condition, I’m inclined to think he deserves a rest, and certainly millions of people out there, Apple customers and otherwise, are rooting for his eventual recovery.
The other question is, of course, the extent of Jobs’ involvement since returning to Apple in mid-2009. If he has truly reduced his direct participation in company affairs, all of their great product executions were accomplished by others, with his approval. If that’s the case, maybe Jobs can continue to work part-time at Apple, even direct from his home, and concentrate on getting better.
I suppose the real question is whether this medical leave is, as feared with the last, a permanent decision, even if Jobs survives and his health improves. Despite the concerns over a secret succession plan, it may well be that Cook has long been groomed for the top spot, even though he doesn’t have the magnetic personality of a Steve Jobs. It’s possible that, with a little training, he can become a little looser in his public demeanor, although that may not matter if Apple continues to manage public information as effectively as they have up till now, at least in most respects.
My gut feeling is, regardless of the condition of Steve Jobs, his company is in safe hands, and will continue to lead the pack among players in the tech industry for many years to come.