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Are Steve Jobs' Innards Really Any of Our Business?

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79px-Steve_Jobs_with_red_shawl_editSo now we know the dark, sinister story: Steve Jobs took someone’s liver in Memphis.

Yes, it’s true! I read it in the Wall Street Journal. After sequestering himself in the haunted, Faulknerian chambers of some abandoned manor in the city of Elvis and the ancient Greeks, Jobs enlisted some accomplices to procure the liver so that the filthy-rich old man might live. According to one accomplice, his prognosis is [ominously tapping fingertips together] “excellent.”

I exaggerate, but only slightly. After reading all the stories that have dominated newsfeeds, Twitterstreams and tech news aggregators, I had to resist the thought that Jobs was some sort of “X-Files” monster who fed off livers to preserve his nefarious life. After all, he belittled Apple’s board. He lied to Wall Street. He cut in line ahead of poorer patients. And so on.

There’s a perverse irony to all this. Jobs waged a long, initially fruitless yet over the decades highly effective PR war painting Microsoft as an evil force in the technology industry. And now, just as he sits atop the shrinking pile of revered business executives, he’s being tarred with the same black brush.

It makes you wonder whether those writing breathless dispatches on someone’s frail health as though they were auditioning for a job as Perez Hilton’s research assistant know anyone with a life-threatening illness. And if they do, if they’d like to see that person’s fight treated like a third-rate reality show. The thin rationalization behind the tech media frenzy has been this: If the CEO that made Apple a stellar success is gravely ill, we need to know.

But of course, as it turns out, we didn’t know. And the only thing that not knowing changed was that Apple’s stock was slightly more volatile for a short period of time. As expected, other Apple executives stood in capably while Jobs was out. The new iPhone didn’t disappoint. And Jobs appears to be back at work.

While we were obsessing over Jobs’ absence, we lost something even more important. We ignored the right of a human being to face a life crisis in private. We forgot what it would feel like to have strangers intrude on an experience that is disorienting, self-defining and unimaginable until it happens.

Yes, there’s the whole investor disclosure issue. Apple should have made clear early on that its CEO was ill and would take an open-ended leave. But can you imagine another CEO for whom investors and journalists would clamor to know what illness, what treatment, what chance of death within the year? And honestly, after the past year do investors really have any anger left to hurl at executives who keep secrets for health reasons, and not to cover up fraud?

Some disclosure here: I’ve never owned any Apple shares, but Steve Jobs donated some early Apple computers to my college, and I doubt I’d have finished my thesis if he hadn’t. Also, while on one hand I like Steve Jobs, on the other hand, I don’t. He’s made my life easier as a consumer (iPods, Macs) but harder as a journalist (silencing leakers, opaque metrics). He’s an inspiration, but let’s face it, he’s also kind of a jerk.

The point of this disclosure is not, however, to make clear that I don’t have a hidden agenda when it comes to Apple. It’s to illustrate how if you say something provocative, good or bad, about the company or its CEO, you instantaneously and inevitably invite questions about your motives. OK then, in the name of full disclosure, here’s my motive with this post: I have never faced a life-threatening illness, but several people close to me have.

And while I hate to say it, I honestly think most of the coverage I’ve read about Jobs’ illness has less to do with him or Apple and more to do with others drawing attention to themselves.

29 Responses to “Are Steve Jobs' Innards Really Any of Our Business?”

  1. >> But can you imagine another CEO for whom investors and journalists would clamor to know what illness, what treatment, what chance of death within the year? <<

    Yup – any CEO for any company, particularly when the CEO and company pretend that there isn't an issue and dismiss investors' right to know.

    If you worked for the owner of a company, would that person have a right to know why you wanted to take off some extensive time? Of course. Even asking the question seems idiotic. The owner wants to know how to plan for the future. Well, Steve Jobs works for the investors. They have a right to know what's going on. Disclosure comes with the territory, as does the wealth, power, and privilege. If Jobs wanted a completely private life, then he should have stayed with completely private companies that he owned outright. Once you sell off large amounts of the company to investors, then you have an obligation greater than your own personal preferences.

  2. C Nelson

    There was an interesting piece on the internet I was reading about enlightenment (not the window manager although I’ve used that for years). Enlightenment as in the religion thing — Buddhism, Hindu religions, yoga, meditation — that enlightenment.

    The theory there, of course, bringing the concept of enlightenment into the 21st century — is that it’s DNA. You could say that (if you believe in reincarnation) how many hundreds of thousands of lives you have to live through to achieve it — but look at that statistically — one in a million people have this DNA. Enlightenment is very real, and it’s DNA. Most of us don’t know how to handle it. Many of us have very big heads (physically, that is). Large hat sizes, as it were. Most of us don’t know how to fit in (and most is really not very many, is what I’m saying). It’s hard to handle it. It seems like a curse. Like a spider without a web. No train of thought. Seeing everything clearly.

    Anyway, Jobs looks to me, at least according to this theory, that he is what eastern religions would call “enlightened”. I doubt he’s a narcisisst. He just lives in a world full of them (as we all do to greater or lesser extents, and so it’s like the if you can’t beat them join them thing). That would explain (at least in part) how your bonuses get handed out at or near the lows — when your brain is a big zero, everything else can be seen very clearly. And I don’t mean “zero” in a bad sense, obviously, eastern religions wouldn’t have such a high respect for enlightenment if it wasn’t a significant thing.

    Anyway, if the DNA theory of enlightenment is true, then you can meditate ’till your blue in the face and you won’t get there — it’s DNA, you’re born with it. Of course, WHY you’re born with it — that’s another story.

    As such, as an enlightened being in this crazy world, Jobs needs to be careful in ways that no one can really expound upon, because so few people have had to deal with it. I’d say the trouble here is something akin to the lines of transparency — what’s transparent to whom.

    Has the ipod changed the world when Jammie Thomas just got fined almost $2 mil? What good is the iPhone if I can’t have Verizon? All electronics — look at what happened with Seagate drives just recently — all electronics are prone to having quality glitches. Putting a nice fancy aluminum case or 10 thousand temperature monitors doesn’t change that — again — what’s transparent to whom?

    The man is special — the man is one in a million. He’s enlightened. He was born that way. That’s my theory, anyway. As far as computers and ipods and iphones and so on, if you line up your transparency (or make what’s transparent to Mr. Jobs transparent to yourself), it’s totally awesome. Approach it from a realistic standpoint, however, look at it from a different point of view, and it ain’t “all that”.

    It’s certainly not too late — it’s never too late. One, is the DNA theory of enlightenment true (I’d say it is) and Two — will he ever realize it. And there’s no documentation on how to deal with it, either. It sucks.

    I’d say focus on the inner. A good kernel. An elegant userland. A framework for building GUI apps that gets folks up to speed quickly. An environment where good ideas don’t have to encounter barriers that make them disappear. (Lotus Improv).

    It’s the inner, not the outer. Maybe it’s the outer that sells, maybe selling the outer is what’s necessary to keep the inner on life support, but things change — we’re in a world where Linux is taking on steam, a world where FreeBSD is coming back from the dead. I’m not going to go any further here, you can probably figure out what I’m driving at – but the beauty of an OS — given as a gift (at a nominal fee) to the world — the beauty of creating a larger marketplace for ideas expressed as software — software that “just works” on an os that “just works”, while also creating a larger marketplace for hardware, while still “just working”.

    Apple could easily, by my estimations, grab upwards of 30% market share for the OS, but not if they keep insisting on focusing on the outer — you have to wonder why this transparency of the real world occurs – it’s totally unnecessary.

    Anyway, that’s what I think.

  3. Robert LC

    I love the contradistinction between Apple management and Steve Jobs, as though its obsessive secrecy and disregard for disclosure had nothing to do with the CEO.
    I can’t believe an adult in 2009 would try to argue that transparency doesn’t matter, or that investors shouldn’t care. Reportedly the story was leaked by a board member. And so s/he should have.

  4. Can’t help wondering what would have happened to Microsoft if Bill Gates & Co. had acted in the same way as Jobs and Apple. My guess is there would have been calls for a federal investigation and plenty of tar and feathers. I like Apple’s products but their business practices leave a lot to be desired. I’m also thankful they never achieved the market dominance that Microsoft did. It would have been a nightmare for all of us that care about openness.

      • Mike Cerm

        Apple, particularly during the second tenure of Jobs, has always been more secretive, more vertically integrated, and more hostile toward competition. If that’s how you measure “evil”, then Apple is more “evil” than Microsoft.

        However, those same things that made them “evil” also ensured that they never reached the kind of market-share that Microsoft has in the PC business, so no one ever really cared (until the iPod started to get popular, and everyone who wanted one was forced to install iTunes).

  5. Steve job and his co are like north Korea , tightly closed from rest of the world , 100% totalitarian and monopolist ….in this case succession becomes an important question ……but as if today north korea /apple /steve jobs vanish from face of earth would make no significant impact as both are insignificant minority …while Microsoft which is like china has huge impact

  6. Awesome post. There is no doubt that Jobs makes a point of flaunting the rules/authority, consequences be damned. Those offended by it are technically right. How could they not be?

    At the same time, there is ample “real-world” data on Jobs/Apple. If these same people are truly surprised, then they haven’t done their homework. This is the status quo. That should be priced into their risk analysis as an investor.

    As a consumer and as a fan of inspired design and holistic product realization (across hardware, software, service, marketplace, distribution and developer tools), to me Apple remains a company to be celebrated, not scorned, something that I blogged about in:

    Apple is a Great American Company Worth Celebrating

    Check it out if interested.


  7. Mike, I have to disagree. Reclusive narcissists aren’t so rare – they just don’t get much PR. And while Steve Jobs’ ability to lead Apple is fair game, his health – that is, the reason he can or can’t lead – is not.

    Also, this was pretty disingenuous of you:

    “Think of it this way, what would have been worse for Apple: if they announced that the price of flash would lead to near-term shortages of the iPhone 3GS causing them to miss Wall Street’s estimate for the quarter, or that Steve had died on the table during a secret liver transplant?”

    You’re unfairly stacking the deck in favor of your own argument. A quarterly miss would last a quarter at most, and more likely a few weeks. Flash prices are trending down, and if they pop up Apple can hedge. This is the kind of minor crisis that hardware companies face regularly.

    But since you raise the whole cult of Jobs, let me ask you this: If you’re looking from the cold-blooded perspective of an investor, is there really any difference between a CEO dying suddenly during a liver transplant (which almost never happens) and a CEO suddenly resigning “for personal reasons” (which routinely happens)? From that perspective, there’s no practical difference. They’re both gone, whether a successor is in place or not. The only reason it’s different with Jobs is because of the cult. Which I think is nonsense. At the end of the day, he’s just another human being. As such, his health is his own matter. Just as your health is your own business.

      • In other words, in which declaration or document is it stated that human beings have a right to face a life crisis in private? You wrote those words so you must be referring to something specific and not just made it out of thin air, right?

    • Steve Jobs after his return to the company has rebuilt it on very strong foundations. The team he has assembled this time is not sugar water pushers and has shown itself to be quite capable of running the company in his absence. As an avid Mac user and an investor, I do not feel that Steve Jobs’ health should be so manipulated by the media and the short traders. I wish to god that people would allow him to recover in private from this life-threatening disease he is suffering from. I for one wish him a speedy recovery from this liver transplant procedure.
      I choose to buy and hold the stock based on the sterling business results this company has achieved quarter after quarter. It is a company which is defining the technology market right now, is flush with cash and has zero debt in the till. What is not to like about AAPL? There are very few companies in this country that are run so efficiently and I do not feel any qualm at all investing my money with such a winner. All that talk about Jobs’ health has been overplayed for the benefit of the short traders. People who think that this company will collapse should Jobs disappear need not play in this market at all.

  8. Mike Cerm

    Steve is a rare breed – the reclusive narcissist. When he’s on the stage, you’re supposed to think that he’s God, but when he’s off the stage, no one could be more private.

    In any case, his health is fair-game. Despite being an enormous, publicly-traded company, Apple is run like a messianic cult. Things are done Steve’s way or not at all. For years, he made his keynotes, often referred to as Stevenotes, as much about himself as about the products. For the decade or so since his return, we were made to believe that Steve Jobs IS Apple, and Apple IS Steve Jobs.

    The public, Apple’s investors, have a right to know what’s happening with their company. Regardless of how important his vision and leadership actually are to Apple, given the perception of his role within Apple, Steve is essential to Apple’s stock price. Steve and the board at Apple know this, which is why they lied for so long about Steve’s health, and continue to manage the disclosure of the truth.

    What makes how this all has gone down borderline-criminal, is that they did use misinformation and disinformation to manage the stock price. Think of it this way, what would have been worse for Apple: if they announced that the price of flash would lead to near-term shortages of the iPhone 3GS causing them to miss Wall Street’s estimate for the quarter, or that Steve had died on the table during a secret liver transplant?

    When you’re the public face of a public corporation, I think it’s to be expected that people are going to talk about your health when you appear on stage and you’re 30 lbs. underweight. That Steve might be dead by now if not for the transplant, that’s not inconsequential. Sure, there were some attention-seekers out there spreading rumors for their own benefit. However, the journalists who were after the truth in the matter and did their best to report it, they’re not just ambulance-chasing fabulists. This was a legitimate story, and obviously there was a “there” there.

  9. The only reason why I would care about Steve’s health is because it should trigger a very vital question – the question of succession. In all fairness, Steve is entitled to his privacy and the means he chooses to handle his health. Whether he stood in the long queue for a liver transplant or he got a preferential treatment is an excellent topic for an ethics debate. But from a business point of view, the problem that Apple should grapple with is: What after Steve. Look around – You will see Microsoft struggling in a post-Gates era – not as much with it’s business as with its corporate charisma and influence. Look back at Apple itself – the days of Apple without Steve. Imagine what ever would happen to Oracle without it’s boss. In summary, when a single person acquires a persona larger than the company itself, the company is at risk. Big time. Steve would do his dear company a favor by consciously creating and projecting the next line of leadership. And that doesn’t merely mean new showmen at apple – it means a conscious promotion of “not invented by Steve” ideas. Steve needs more than just a new liver to be able to do that – he needs to overcome himself! And the truly greatest are capable of this. Shouldn’t be too difficult for Steve :-)

    • That transition risk is always there, but for every Jobs –> Sculley there is a Gerstner –> Palmisano, and for every Gates –> Ballmer there is a Grove –>Barrett/Otellini. If Jobs hasn’t learned by now how to pick a good successor, he’s not a very bright CEO.

      My problem with Apple is that we may never know which ideas were invented by Steve and which were not. Had Apple done a better job of being up front with its business decisions, the whole Jobs myth would never have spun out of control – and his health matters might have stayed private.

      • Couldn’t agree more. The patent applications of Apple, more often than not, include Steve’s name amongst the inventors. Legendary design decisions (such as the transparent iMac or iPod wheel) are ascribed to Steve. Generally speaking, there needn’t be any doubt about his genius as an inventor. But that does not automatically imply that he is a “very bright CEO”. On one hand, being a fan of Apple, I hope that Steve is able to attract and enrich new talent, so that the company continues to make wonderful products. On the other hand, being realistic, I would expect Apple’s creativity to be affected by Steve’s health and his ability (or limitations) to attract and encourage new talent.

      • Does it matter who invented what. We got to enjoyed what was created. He came back and started hiring the right people for Apple and the results are very apparent today.

        I don’t whether you will make a better CEO than Jobs, maybe you will be more visionary than him and give us far better stuffs than what has been dish out by Apple thus far. Maybe you as the CEO will give us the iPhone with the works and the Mac which can work at 4ghz.

      • Does it matter who invented what. We got to enjoyed what was created. He came back and started hiring the right people for Apple and the results are very apparent today.

        I don’t whether you will make a better CEO than Jobs, maybe you will be more visionary than him and give us far better stuffs than what has been dish out by Apple thus far. Maybe you as the CEO will give us the iPhone with the works and the Mac which can work at 4ghz.