Thursday, January 15, 2009

On Jobs' Health and On Apple

Apple investors have doubtless heard that Steve Jobs, who skipped MacWorld for the first time in a decade, has taken a leave of absence for health reasons. (No, I lied about Apple canceling Christmas. That was a joke.)

Jobs, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and tried to "treat" it with new-age therapy until someone whacked sense into him and got him to a surgeon, initially declared himself cured. When his appearance didn't bear that out, folks worked out that Jobs had a not-too-uncommon post-treatment complication that impacted his ability to keep weight on. Jobs' statements about his health have been upbeat throughout -- from his hospital-bed email announcing both his diagnosis and its cure to his holiday announcement that he was skipping MacWorld.

There are a bunch of people who now want to say Steve is a liar. The truth is that Steve has repeatedly said things that turned out to be inaccurate later. Uninterested in entering the PDA space, for example. Steve is all about managing information. And Steve is famously protective of his private life, which is something of a problem for a high-profile personality.

There is another possibility I might suggest. Like other entrepreneurs, Jobs likely finds the ever-present possibility of failure in every undertaking to be a drag on the actual work of trying to make new ideas work, and is in the habit of simply proceeding every day as if the current projects will succeed. If you assume anything else, you will stop, right? I suspect Jobs simply emoted outwardly the same line he'd been feeding himself inwardly.

That positive attitude they tell you to cultivate when you are in treatment doesn't seem to go over quite as well when examined by potential shareholder litigants.

Apple has some excellent lieutenants. (Like Eddie Cue. Or Jonathan Ive.) The question is whether Apple has other generals. Maybe this guy recently recruited from IBM has the right stuff.

Just as Jobs was iCEO for a long time before the mantle was officially passed, I expect Jobs to retain the mantle for some time before anyone admits the temporary leave of absence is anything but. Apple doesn't need the distraction from its opportunities, but Apple definitely needs to lose the instructions from the top that Apple doesn't need to take seriously opportunities to sell to businesses. Good things could come from this.

Remember, Jobs can't write code and can't design hardware. The details that make Apple competitive are all coming from other folks. The trick is to retain enough motivation at the top to keep everyone hungry to do good work. That's not an engineering problem, it's a management problem. Recruiting good managers may not be a strength of Jobs, but many on the Board have seen it done and, in the absence of Jobs, will be in a position to ensure the process doesn't go too awry.

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