Is the persistent speculation about the health of Jobs, a survivor of pancreatic cancer, offensive? Perhaps. But Apple shareholders are not observing such niceties. They are tanking the stock, which dropped abruptly after Gizmodo posted the latest health rumor. Such drops are becoming predictable — and, I think, tiresome for Jobs and the rest of Apple's board.
Apple spokespeople aren't denying the rumors about his health; they just keep trotting out the same, predictable line:
If Steve or the board decides that Steve is no longer capable of doing his job as CEO of Apple, I am sure they will let you know.
Here's a newsflash: Jobs and the board already have let us know, by pulling Jobs from the Macworld conference's stage for his annual speech. The January keynote, a flashy media event attended by a global corps of tech reporters, requires weeks of grueling practice. And speaking at public events is one of Jobs's chief responsibilities.
Apple has said it is abandoning the Macworld event after 2009 and doesn't want to make the "investment" in it that having Jobs speak would present. How I translate that: Jobs's remaining time is somehow viewed as increasingly scarce, and having him make an exhausting effort for Apple's last Macworld just isn't worth it.
The Macworld speech will be delivered by Phil Schiller, a schlubby marketing executive who plays Jobs's clownish sidekick. Schiller once jumped off a platform onto a foam mat to demonstrate an Apple laptop's wireless-networking capabilities, the kind of undignified effort Jobs would never make himself. Analysts are expecting Schiller won't unveil any showy new gadgets, just updates to its existing product line.
Schiller's no substitute for Jobs. But that's rather the point of trotting him out: To prove that Apple doesn't need someone with Jobs's showmanship to carry on. Jobs may be in perfect health; he may be near death. But either way, a company with 32,000 employees and $32 billion in annual revenues can't be seen as depending on the fate of one man.
Jobs has, incredibly, created three breakthrough products in his career: the Mac, the iPod, and the iPhone. He has nothing left to prove. And he must realize that the public's obsession with him, so carefully cultivated and exploited to Apple's benefit over the years, is now hurting his company. He saved Apple by returning to it a decade ago. He has credible successors in place. Now it's time to leave.
(Photoillustration by Jackson West)