Control freak Steve Jobs's chaotic Macworld no-show news

Steve Jobs is a famed perfectionist. The way word leaked out he wouldn't keynote at Macworld was anything but controlled, raising concerns that his health had taken an unexpected turn.

As with Sarah Palin's baby rumors, the scurrilous media forced Jobs's hand. Arik Hesseldahl, a BusinessWeek reporter, noticed a blog post which pointed out Jobs had not yet been confirmed as a speaker for the annual event, which serves as an international showcase for Apple's products, a massive blogosphere buzz builder, and an orgy of media obsession.

As Hesseldahl put it to me, he wasn't thinking of a story as much as whether he should book his flight for the show. He called Apple last Friday, and got no response — typical for Apple's tight-lipped PR operation. But on Monday, he managed to reach Paul Kent, the general manager of Macworld Expo, who told him he had "no reason to believe that plans are not moving ahead," which Hesseldahl took as confirmation that Jobs would show up.

When Hesseldahl published a story on Monday with the headline "Steve Jobs Will Be at Macworld," all hell broke loose. Kent called back, saying he meant that the show would go forward, not that Jobs was a sure thing. Hesseldahl changed "will" to "may" in his headline and updated the story — but Kent's PR firm kept calling to backpedal. The story spread, and the drumbeat of speculation grew ever louder.

Then, late Tuesday, came Apple's announcement that Jobs would not deliver the keynote address at Macworld, a tradition he's maintained since he returned to the company a decade ago. The cover story was plausible enough: Trade shows were an outdated way to sell Macs and iPhones. But Apple investors didn't buy it, sending the stock down in after-hours trading.

What it speaks to is a control freak who's lost control. Are we to believe that Jobs, who's known for minutely orchestrating every aspect of his keynotes, whimsically decided to abandon Macworld three weeks before the event? That defies reason. Apple was apparently stringing Macworld along, delaying and delaying the announcement, and hoping no one would notice.

Put that in the context of Jobs's ghastly gauntness at this summer's launch of the iPhone 3G, and the ongoing speculation about his health. It's generally understood that the surgery to treat his pancreatic cancer rewired his digestive system, giving him difficulty in digesting some foods. (I've heard he can no longer drink his favorite beverage, a nonalcoholic grape juice from California's Navarro vineyards.) And fears persist that his cancer might return. I keep hearing apocryphal rumors that Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, who is among Jobs's closest friends, once broke down in tears and said, "My best friend is dying."

Amidst that kind of worry, why would Jobs take the stage again? He'd have the fit of his jeans and the flushness of his cheeks debated on blogs in the kind of minute detail that used to be reserved for a new Apple laptop. Showing up in the wrong condition might be as bad for Apple as not showing up at all.

That's why I think there must have been a ferocious debate within Apple about whether he should go on with his keynote, which was brought to a head by the BusinessWeek story. It's the opposite of how Jobs likes to operate — smoothly, in secrecy, with no chinks in the armor of Apple's publicity machine. And it's the clearest sign that something is wrong with Jobs. The ultimate control freak is not himself.