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net.wars: Health watch

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 16 January 2009


We'll have to wait some months to find out what Steve Jobs' health situation really is, just as investors will have to wait to find out how well Apple is prepared to handle his absence.

Wendy M Grossman

But that doesn't stop rampant speculation about both things, or discussion about whether Jobs owes it to the public to disclose his health problems.

As an individual, of course he doesn't. We (net.wars) write – probably too often for some people's tastes – about privacy with respect to health matters. But Jobs isn't just a private individual, and he isn't an average CEO, either.

Like Warren Buffett, who saw his company's share price decline noticeably some years back during a scare over his health, Jobs's presence as CEO is a noticeable percentage of Apple's share price. That means that shareholders – and therefore by extension the Securities and Exchange Commission - have some legitimate public interest in his state of health.

That doesn't mean that all the speculation going on is a good thing.

If Jobs is smart, he doesn't read news stories about himself; in normal times no one needs their sense of self-importance inflated that much, and in a health crisis the last thing you need is to read dozens of people speculating that you're on the way out. The pruriently curious may like to know that there is some speculation that the weight loss is the result of the Whipple procedure Jobs reportedly had in 2004 to treat his islet cell neuroendocrine tumor (a less aggressive type of pancreatic cancer); or that it's a thyroid disorder.

Actually, nobody knows. But no one wants to just write a post that says simply, "I don't know."

It would not matter if Jobs and Apple did not so conpicuously embrace the cult of personality. The downside of having a celebrity CEO is that when that CEO is put out of action the company struggles to keep its market credibility. The more the CEO takes credit – and Jobs is indelibly associated with each of Apple's current products – the less confidence people have in the company he runs.

To a large extent, it's absurd. No one – not even Jobs – can run a tech company the size of Apple by himself. Jobs may insist on signing off on every design detail, but let's face it, he's not the one working evenings and weekends to write the software code and run bug testing and run a final polishing cloth over the shinies before they hit the stores.

Nonetheless, Apple definitely lost its way during the period he wasn't at the helm – that much is history. That was his fault: Jobs personally recruited John Sculley, the CEO who ran Apple during those lost years.

And Jobs's next company, NeXT, was a glossy, well-designed, technically sophisticated market failure whose biggest success came when Apple bought it (and Jobs) and incorporated some of the company's technology into its products. Jobs had far more success with Pixar, now part of Disney; but accounts of the company's early history suggest it was the company's founders who did the heavy lifting.

Unfortunately, if you're a public company you don't get to create public confidence by pointing out the obvious: that even with Jobs out of action there's a lot of company left for the managers he picked to run in the direction's he's chosen. Apple, whose relations with the press seem to be a dictionary definition of "arrogant", has apparently never cared to create a public image for itself that suggests it's a strong company with or without Jobs.

Compare and contrast to Buffett, who has been a rock star CEO for far longer than Jobs has. Buffett is a lot older at 78, and Berkshire Hathaway's success is universally associated almost solely with him. Yet every year he reminds shareholders that he has three or four candidates to succeed him who are chosen, and primed, and known to his board of directors.

His annual shareholder's letters, too, are filled with praise for the managers and directors of the many subsidiaries Berkshire owns. Based on all that, it is clear that Buffett has an eye to ensuring that his company will retain its value and culture with or without him. That so many Berkshire Hathaway millionaires are his personal friends and neighbours, who staked money in the company decades ago at some personal risk, may have something to do with it.

Apple has not done anything like the same, which may have something to do with the personality of its CEO.

Jobs's health troubles of 2004 should have been a wakeup call; if Buffett can understand that his age is a concern for shareholders, why can't Jobs understand that his health is, too? If he doesn't want people prying into his medical condition, that's understandable. But then the answer is to loosen his public identification with the company.

As long as the perception is that Jobs is Apple and Apple is Jobs, the company's fortunes and share price will be inextricably linked to the fragility of his aging human body. Show that the company has a plan for succession, give its managers and product developers public credit, and identify others with its most visible products, and Jobs can go back to having some semblance of a private medical record.


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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).