Iconic, turtle-neck-sweater-wearing genius or customer-service-shy megalomaniac, depending on your point of view: Steve Jobs is unwell again.
Jobs, a pancreatic cancer survivor who’s been accused of lying repeatedly about the state of his health so as not to frighten the stock market, emailed staff on the weekend to say he’s taking another leave of absence:
At my request, the board of directors has granted me a medical leave of absence so I can focus on my health. I will continue as CEO and be involved in major strategic decisions for the company.
I have asked Tim Cook to be responsible for all of Apple’s day-to-day operations. I have great confidence that Tim and the rest of the executive management team will do a terrific job executing the exciting plans we have in place for 2011.
I love Apple so much and hope to be back as soon as I can. In the meantime, my family and I would deeply appreciate respect for our privacy.
He just happened to announce the news when US stock markets were closed for Martin Luther King Day. For all his superpowers he couldn’t stop the markets reacting when they reopened after the holiday, though: shares lost $9.64 in the next two days, wiping almost $9bn from the firm’s market capitalisation.
This is the third leave Jobs has been forced to take since 2004, but last time he said from the outset he would be out of action for only six months. In his latest letter to staff, he simply says he hopes to be back as soon as he can. That choice of words has clearly worried the markets and some analysts, too. Peter Misek, analyst at Jefferies, wrote:
Length of leave unknown. Reason unknown, but the wording of this leave is different and therefore implies a more unknown tenure to his departure. This could be extended.
But it should be extended indefinitely. Jobs is clearly still struggling with health issues and remaining CEO of the phenomenon that Apple has become cannot be helping. What’s more, his chief operating officer Tim Cook has shown himself more than capable of being the next leader, having covered for Jobs before, even if he may lack some of Jobs’s charisma on stage.
It’s clear that when Jobs does eventually abdicate his throne, the company will lose many billions of dollars from its market capitalisation, not to mention an innovative, inspiring and passionate leader. But he can’t hang on for ever, and there have been signs of late that he’s not firing on all cylinders.
There was the PR gaffe over what became known as Antennagate. When customers complained that the iPhone 4 was dropping calls Jobs initially denied there was a problem, then accepted there was a problem but said it was one that affects other smartphones (a claim largely refuted by analysts and customers of those phones), and finally had to offer free “bumper cases” that helped mitigate the issue.
Then there was his bizarre and wholly unnecessary attack on the Google Android operating system and tablet computers that rival the Apple iPad. That came on an earnings call that should have been positive rather than snide, as the firm had once again announced record results. Speaking about the operating system, Jobs said:
Twitter client [TweetDeck] recently launched their app for Android. They reported that they had to contend with more than a hundred different versions of Android software on 244 different handsets. The multiple hardware and software iterations present developers with a daunting challenge.
To which the CEO of TweetDeck fired back via Twitter: “Did we at any point say it was a nightmare developing on Android? Errr nope, no we didn’t. It wasn’t.”
More muddled thinking came in Jobs’s attack on tablet computers that rival Apple’s iPad when he said of seven-inch tablets (three inches smaller than the iPad):
It is meaningless, unless your tablet also includes sandpaper, so that the user can sand down their fingers to around one-quarter of the present size. Apple’s done extensive user-testing on touch interfaces over many years, and we really understand this stuff. There are clear limits of how close you can physically place elements on a touch screen before users cannot reliably tap, flick or pinch them.
That must have come as a surprise to Apple’s iPhone users: they have been tapping, flicking and pinching elements on a screen half the size of the iPad for years.
There have also been embarrassing email exchanges between Jobs, customers and bloggers.
But he shouldn’t go for any of these reasons. Indeed, they are minor failings when pitted against his inarguable achievements: Apple has become the largest company in tech by market cap, it sold three million iPads in the first 80 days after the product went on sale . . . the list of milestones goes on. There’s not much more Jobs can possibly have to prove.
He should go in order to save his own health, and to bring clarity and consistency to Apple’s leadership. If not for himself, then for Apple’s employees. As he wrote in a letter to staff in January 2009:
Unfortunately, the curiosity over my personal health continues to be a distraction not only for me and my family, but everyone else at Apple as well.
So go on, Your Steveness, call it a day.