Apple’s major Jobs loss
The news that Steve Jobs was taking a leave of absence on health grounds was at once both shocking and out of the blue, and yet at the same time the confirmation of the other shoe dropping that we know has been on the way for months.
Deep down, we all knew this was where it was going from the moment Steve Jobs abruptly pulled out of the traditional keynote speech at the 2009 Macworld Expo. For all the skilful sleight-of-hand that Apple deployed (expos were a thing of the past; Apple didn’t want to dance to anyone else’s schedule) there was still the startling central fact that Jobs wasn’t even going to give so much as a valedictory keynote to an event that’s been awfully good and very important to Apple in the past. Not even so much as a surprise walk-on at the end to bid farewell? No amount of misdirection could conceal the fact that something was very wrong here: Jobs was either too ill to speak, or looked so ill that his very appearance in public would send Apple stock into freefall.
Jobs really is that critical to Apple, which is why – as distasteful as intruding into someone’s personal health – in this case it is unavoidable. (Indeed it’s probably the reason why last week’s easily treated “hormonal imbalance” has become this week’s “more complex that originally thought” – someone probably pointed out that to withhold this from next week’s quarterly statement could be a breach of the law, so serious an impact it would have on the shareholders. Indeed, talk of lawsuits by shareholders is already revving up.) Anyone doubting that Jobs is this crucial should just turn their minds back to the mid-90s when a Jobs-less Apple, under the uninspired management of Gil Amelio turned out similarly uninspired anonymous beige computers that literally faded into the background. Apple was literally sliding into obsolescence, so much so that even when Steve Jobs returned as “interim” CEO few people thought that Apple was salvageable. Yet look at it now: a powerhouse, growing in market share all over the world, and the company that’s transformed the computer, music and phone markets. It’s surely inspiring to us all that even in this day and age of globalisation, one person can still truly make such a huge difference to the world in which they live.
We can only hope that a similar story of miraculous recovery can be written for Steve Jobs. Unfortunately, if I’m honest, I doubt we’ll ever see him return as CEO. The best I think we can hope for is that he takes on a visionary-in-chief role much as Bill Gates moved to at Microsoft in 2000, someone to see the big picture and paint broad strategic brushstrokes while leaving the day to day work for others – hard though that would be for a workaholic detail-obsessed person as Steve Jobs. It will also be necessary to put in place a management team and a successor capable of doing the implementation – something Steve Jobs has been reluctant to do but which now becomes top priority.
Because I fear even this much is a lot to hope for right now. Jobs was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer back in 2004, and while that was treated successfully it still seems that in most cases of the disease, a survival period of 3-5 years is considered a success. Even if Jobs has a less serious form of the disease (as has been said), the latest “hormonal imbalance” is grim news. Analysts are right to point out that this can be a common side-effect of pancreatic cancer; what is less said is that any onset of such problems in someone with this medical history almost certainly indicates a more devastating underlying cause, so much so that it would be common practice to immediate commence chemotherapy even before the presence of cancer was confirmed (or not), such is the need for quick and aggressive treatment. Even so, the fact is that the outlook is grim, and I say that with the pain in my heart as someone who lost a parent to a similarly devastating and resistent-treatment cancer a decade ago.
Apple will continue. It has a lot of good people working for it (including designer Jonathan Ive, who might not be the showman Jobs is but who is arguably more important to Apple’s current product line than even the boss.) Hopefully they’ve learnt from Jobs what Apple is and what makes it a success, and they can take it forward from here. But no one really argues that without Jobs, the way ahead is uncertain; and the future would lose its greatest advocate and navigator.