Update: Apple leaves open Jobs' health issue

John Shinal · July 21, 2008 · Short URL: https://vator.tv/n/32d

A culture of secrecy versus a duty to shareholders

Steve Jobs healthFor users of Apple products, the biggest question this week is where (or if) they can still find a new iPhone. 

The answer, for now, is 'in a few U.S. stores.'  True addicts need to jet to France or Russia this week -- or be willing to pay big on eBay -- if they want to get their hands on one.

For owners of Apple's stock, however, the focus is on CEO Steve Jobs' health, which has been under scrutiny since his gaunt appearance at the Apple developers' conference last month.

Apple's first chance to address the issue came when it released its results and forecast and conducted a conference call today.

Jobs rarely appears on the call, while other Apple executives typically under-promise, then over-deliver on sales and profit.

That's something long-time Apple watchers know can move the stock in the wake of the earnings report. This quarter was no exception, with results for the completed quarter beating Wall Street estimates while the forecast for the current period fell short of them.

The possibility of some eye-popping trading drama, however, depended on whether Apple would shed any light on whether Jobs has had a recurrence of the rare pancreatic cancer that required surgery four years ago.

Back then, Apple didn't disclose Jobs' condition until after it was successfully treated, and the news first reports came only after the company had emailed a statement to its own employees.

Update - This time around, Apple couldn't ignore the issue, given the amount of speculation already swirling around it and considering how much his vision is key to the company's success.

If the company had said nothing, the silence could have been interpreted as dodging and Apple's stock might have been hammered. 

Some straight talk from Jobs on the call, while a long shot given his penchant for privacy, could have settled the matter.

As it was, Apple skirted the issue with phrasing that was far from definitive.

Jobs wasn't on the call, and CFO Peter Oppenheimer said only that the CEO's health was a private matter and that Jobs had no plans to leave the company. 

As a result, health-related speculation may continue to impact assessments of Apple's future -- and its share price.

Outside of Jobs' health, Apple is firing on all cylinders.

Apple's PC sales are booming, its iTunes store is the leading digital content provider on the Web and the iPhone has been the must-have gadget for more than a year.

Yet all of these recent market successes depended in large part on Jobs charismatic personality, which means Apple shareholders might dispute the contention that Jobs' health is a private matter.

Who else could have browbeat the major music labels, which had waged a nonstop legal war on digital music sites, into letting him sell their songs on iTunes for just 99 cents. Later, he convinced several of them to sell their music DRM-free, which has helped Apple sell more than 5 billion songs.

Who besides someone with a Disney board seat -- courtesy of its acquisition of the Jobs-run animation company Pixar --  could go into the executive suites of the major studios (or maybe they came to him?) and license their digital content even as they ramp up their own rival services?

And who could have convinced AT&T to subsidize the iPhone to the tune of $200 or more per phone, in exchange for helping the wireless carrier get more data revenue from the Apple faithful? Only someone supremely confident in the iPhone's appeal as a Web-surfing device could have negotiated those terms. 

All CEOs are key to their company's success, of course. Just look at what happened to the shares of VMWare when Diane Green was unexpectedly ousted.

But no other tech CEO is as closely tied to his company's fortunes as Jobs. The fanatic loyalty that Apple users and workers feel toward him are what helps cloak him in a film of Teflon.

Even the stock-option backdating scandal that ensnared other Apple executives left Jobs' position intact and his reputation merely scratched.

I remember being at the All Things D conference three years ago when Jobs talked about his battle with cancer, which clearly caused him to take stock of things beyond Apple.

Many of the CEOs in the audience, used to balancing their personal and public lives, nodded in sympathy.

If Jobs does have a serious health problem, Apple may have reasons for wanting to keep it under wraps. Not wanting a major distraction while it rolls out the iPhone across the globe is quite reasonable. Jobs' condition could also be fluid. But in the age of modern medicine, it's unlikely his doctors wouldn't quickly have a clear prognosis.

The media's intrusion into private lives isn't a popular cause these days, and I'm no fan of Hollywood-style tabloid news. But as a public company, Apple's responsibility to its shareholders should override concerns for Jobs' privacy -- unless there is a compelling strategic reason for keeping it secret.

For their sake, we can hope that when Steve knows for sure, Apple will share that information with the rest of the world.

Given its history of keeping secrets, however, I wouldn't bet on it.


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