Steve Jobs is taking time off to recuperate again. No one knows when the CEO, and indispensable soul of Apple, is coming back. But three medical leaves make it clear Apple should finally give investors real information about Jobs' health.
It's not like Apple's code of silence around Jobs' condition is working. Already today, the New York Times is quoting a source who says Jobs' health has been "up and down" and lately on a downslope, with Jobs coming in to the office only two days a week and "appearing increasingly emaciated." That leak, and speculation from doctors to the Wall Street Journal that Jobs is suffering from a metastasized tumor, reprise years of unsanctioned discussion about what's going on with Jobs' health.
Apple's blockade on information about Jobs' condition — its unwillingness to disseminate even limited information about what's going on — has been proven unsustainable time and time again. It has also failed to calm Apple stockholders. Apple shares closed down six percent in Germany today, dragged down Nasdaq 100 futures, and are expected to face a brutal reception when markets reopen tomorrow after a break for Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
It's disingenuous to argue there's no public dimension to Jobs' health issues. But that's what Apple has done for several years now. "Steve's health is a private matter," CFO Peter Oppenheimer said on a Wall Street conference call in 2008. Or as Jobs wrote in today's announcement, "my family and I would deeply appreciate respect for our privacy."
Amid empathy and concern for Jobs' health problems, amid awe at the gifted technologist's accomplishments, and amid amazement at Apple's products, concerns about corporate governance can seem petty. But it would be far more troubling if Apple kept repeating the official line that nothing involving Jobs' health is investors' business, or if an atmosphere of leaks and endless speculation continued to thrive as a result of that ill advised, if well intentioned, policy.
Let there be no doubt: Apple has never been able to keep Jobs' health truly private. Not long after Oppenheimer's 2008 line in the sand, for example, Jobs himself gave New York Times columnist Joe Nocera enough off the record information to refute his own company's claim that he suffered from a "common bug." Then Jobs bowed out of a Macworld keynote, and Gizmodo reported Jobs' health was declining rapidly, prompting Jobs to allow that he had a "hormone imbalance" but "we can all relax." Less than two weeks later, Apple announced Jobs would be taking his second medical leave due to what it claimed were unanticipated complications.
The health leaks didn't stop after Jobs returned to Apple. The Wall Street Journal reported that Jobs had nearly "starved to death" during his leave. Then it emerged he'd had a liver transplant, prompting a Wall Street Journal editor, along with the Times' Nocera, to say Apple's board was shirking its duties.
The SEC began investigating Apple's health disclosures and non-disclosures shortly thereafter. Even months later, at the crowning glory of the iPad introduction in early 2010, Jobs' handlers reportedly had to shoo away journalists trying to take pictures of Jobs' "old man shuffle."
But there is something Apple could do about the obsessive chatter about Jobs' health, and about the market volatility all the speculation engenders: Start talking. Even partial disclosure, along with an acknowledgment of what is unknown and unknowable, would curb some of the disinformation and panic.
Apple has a quarterly earnings announcement scheduled for tomorrow. But people aren't talking about what are sure to be strong sales and profit numbers; they're obsessing over the wording of Jobs' health statement, where he merely says "I... hope to be back as soon as I can," not that he "will." They're talking about the fact that this leave is open ended, unlike the six month absence in 2009 and the one-month break in 2004. To address investors' concerns, Apple doesn't need to post Jobs' CAT scans. But it should, as corporate governance expert and HealthSouth board member Charles Elson puts it, be "as specific with investors as he [Mr. Jobs] has been with them about the nature of his health difficulties and when he may come back." After all, some select pieces of information could shed considerable light on his prognosis.
It would be tough for anyone, particularly the many admirers of Jobs and his creations, to hear further details of what he is going through. But a single dose of clear and accurate health data would not be nearly so crushing as the endless trickle of desperate info-grubbing, speculation, and uncertainty that ensued every other time Apple has tried saying nothing — and that will surely ensue again if it continues to insist that Jobs' health is no one else's business.
[Photos of Jobs in September 2010 and July 2001 via Getty]