Why Apple might be better off without Steve

I know there are probably already nasty emails on their way to my inbox based solely on the headline of this post. Apple better off without Steve? How is that possible? It’s difficult to even think about the iconic consumer electronics company — now so much more than just a computer maker — without thinking about Steve Jobs. Apple is Steve Jobs, and Steve Jobs is Apple. That’s one of the main reasons why so many people (me included) were so concerned that the company come clean about Jobs’ health over the past few months — because he is so intertwined with the company in people’s minds and certainly in investors’ minds. Every time he appears in a photo looking gaunt, the share price tumbles. How could the company possibly be better off without a man who is a strong CEO, visionary genius and celebrity spokesman all rolled into one?

For the record, I’m not saying that Steve Jobs should cut his ties to Apple, and I realize that speculating about his departure is going to be seen as in bad taste by many people, given his personal health issues. I wish him nothing but the best, and I hope he is around for many years to come. There is no question that Jobs’ vision and laser-like focus on usability and value have worked miracles on Apple’s business model and its share price over the past few years — miracles that many seasoned industry observers never imagined were even possible. So how could not having him around be a good thing for the company? Just stay with me for a minute.

Let me put it this way: While Apple is a successful and widely-admired company with some excellent products, in many ways it is also pretty close to being a cult, as more than one person has argued (with the latest being Dan “Fake Steve Jobs” Lyons, who writes in his recent Newsweek column about how the company is treated with kid gloves by most of the mainstream media). This is hardly surprising, when you think about how low Apple had fallen just a few short years ago. Anyone who can take a company like that and turn it into a market-leading powerhouse with a stock-market value of $75 billion is going to inspire not just admiration but an almost religious devotion.

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Apple still has a credibility problem

For some time now, there has been speculation that Steve Jobs was sicker than either he or Apple wanted to admit. At first, the company said that he simply had “a bug,” and then when the company announced that he would not be doing his usual keynote speech at Macworld — a speech so associated with him that it has come to be known as a “Stevenote” — the company denied it had anything to do with his health. Now, we know that this was untrue. Steve himself has confirmed that he is unwell as a result of a “hormone imbalance,” and that he is working on getting better (although as Wired notes, the letter is somewhat opaque when it comes to the specifics of this problem).

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Steve Jobs and the licence plate mystery

Every once in a while, a mystery comes along that seems bizarre but is just too powerful to resist. The twin mysteries of Steve Jobs and his car are just such a case. According to dozens of reports from Apple insiders over the years — reports that have surfaced in various ways on the Internet, and turned up again recently — the mercurial Apple co-founder and design visionary has a passion about two things when it comes to his car: Number one is driving without licence plates, and the other is parking in handicapped parking spots. Why does he do this? You might as well ask why there is gravity, or why the moon revolves around the sun.

According to some reports, Jobs routinely gets his licence plates stolen, and so he either a) has special dispensation from the California authorities to drive without plates; b) drives with a licence plate either on his dashboard or in his glove compartment, or c) doesn’t worry about the whole licence plate thing and just pays the tickets when they come along. According to some, the California government doesn’t go around handing out special permits, so it has to be either b) or c). There were reports that he had a special bar-code licence plate, but these have also been debunked.

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Wrong — Steve’s health is my business

Ever since Apple’s co-founder, CEO and resident visionary Steven P. Jobs showed up at the Apple developers’ forum looking like a stick figure in a turtleneck, there has been talk about whether he is suffering from a recurrence of the pancreatic cancer he was diagnosed with in 2004. The latest return to that theme is a piece by Joe Nocera in the New York Times about Apple and its “culture of secrecy,” in which the columnist describes how Jobs called him and said ““You think I’m an arrogant [expletive] who thinks he’s above the law, and I think you’re a slime bucket who gets most of his facts wrong.” Jobs then agreed to talk about his health, but only if the details were kept off the record.

The central point that is up for debate is whether Steve’s health is a public matter or a private matter. When I wrote a blog post about Steve’s appearance — one of the first blogs to do so following the developers’ conference — I got criticism both in the comments section of the post and in private emails for raising the issue, which several people said was inappropriate and even “creepy.” I disagreed then and I still disagree now. As Nocera describes in his piece, it’s not clear when a senior executive’s health becomes a material factor for investors, requiring public disclosure. But as far as I’m concerned, the fact that the CEO of a public company like Apple is fighting a potentially terminal disease (if that’s true) definitely qualifies as material information.

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Is Steve Jobs sick again, or just thin?

I’ll leave it to others much more informed than I am to parse through what Apple CEO Steve Jobs announced at the developers conference (although I am glad to hear that we Canucks will be getting a 3G iPhone soon, along with dozens of other countries). But I have to say that one thing really struck me while watching the live-blogging coverage at Gizmodo and Engadget and MacRumours: Jobs looked emaciated. I looked back through photos from the developers conference last year and the year before, and there were comments and blog posts then about how thin he looked — and this time he looked even thinner than that. You could see his collarbone through his shirt (photo courtesy of Engadget).

As most people probably know, Jobs was diagnosed with a form of pancreatic cancer in 2003 and was operated on in 2004 — after reportedly not seeking treatment for more than nine months, while he pursued a range of holistic therapies. Although pancreatic cancer is one of the worst forms of the disease, however, Jobs had a rarer form known as a neuroendocrine tumour, which can often be cured through surgery. That said, many cancers recur even after treatment, especially if they have metastasized (that is, spread to other organs such as the liver or kidney). Of course, there’s no way of knowing.

I’m not the only one who noticed Jobs’ size — it was commented upon by many people on Twitter, and Valleywag wrote a post saying that rumour has it he is on a strict vegan diet. Let’s hope that’s all it is. Note: Some people have told me privately that they think writing about Steve Jobs and his health is “creepy” or otherwise inappropriate, but I have to disagree. The man is the high-profile CEO of a major technology company, and arguably more important to the health and brand identity of that company than the CEO of any other company I can think of. His health is a matter of public interest, not just prurient curiosity.

Update:

Plenty of other places are talking about Steve’s gaunt appearance now, including the Wall Street Journal, the LA Times tech blog, Eric Savitz at Barron’s and Henry Blodget at Silicon Alley Insider. The Apple Insider blog says that according to the company Jobs has been suffering from a “common bug.”