In his profile of Steve Jobs, John Heilemann doubts the sustainability of Apple's digital music business, which is what the geeky blogs will focus on. But the article, in this week's New York magazine, hints at another more shocking question, that neither it, nor the rest of the press, will ask outright: what if the legendary Apple founder, who had surgery for pancreatic cancer in 2004, never fully recovered?
Heilemann begins his piece with a harsh pen-portrait of Jobs at the All Things Digital conference, his hair thinning, his frame "frail-seeming", his gait "halting and labored".
He saunters out onstage, and the first thing you think is, man, Steve Jobs looks old. The second thing you think is, no, not old: He finally looks his age. Well into his forties, Jobs appeared to have pulled off some kind of unholy Dorian Gray maneuver. But now, at 52, his hair is seriously thinning, his frame frail-seeming, his gait halting and labored. His striking facial features—the aquiline nose, the razor-gash dimples—are speckled with ash-gray stubble.
Apple's expansion into the television and cellular markets have the hallmarks of a tycoon in a hurry, which Heilemann's sources put down to his imperial ambition, but could equally have to do with a heightened preoccupation with mortality. And Heilemann's final line is either breathtakingly insensitive, or else a marker, designed to cover all eventualities. "What's at stake is the thing that now must matter to him above all: the ending of his story."
Now the Apple founder's gaunt appearance could merely be the shadow of his earlier illness. Jobs had a rare tumor which can be extinguished by surgery alone, unlike most pancreatic cancers. He said at the time that the disease would not require chemotherapy. It does not have a high rate of recurrence, and the main risk is diabetes later in life, depending how much of the pancreas is removed. Moreover, the Apple boss has always been driven, so one shouldn't automatically attribute the scale of his current ambition to the health scare. As the irascible Jobs himself once snapped, when asked about the arc of his career: "I have no time for this philosophical bullshit!"
Nevertheless, so much of Apple's current energy springs directly from the personality of the founder, one of the few execs with taste and vision in the Valley. Investors attribute up to $20bn of Apple's market capitalization to Jobs' continued presence at the company. He is one of the very few indispensible chief executives. And corporate bosses, unlike presidents, do not have to disclose the results of their annual checkups. Any speculation about the Apple founder's health is just that, speculation. But I can't help thinking that Heilemann is semaphoring a warning, between the lines of his article; and investors and analysts, in their extreme bullishness about Apple, may not have factored in all the risks.