Sour Apple: Steve Jobs and snow jobs

Has the high-tech icon really returned to health and his old job? Apple would like you to think so. Cringely's not so sure

Have you heard the news? Steve Jobs is back.

Well, we think it was Jobs. It might have been some other skinny middle-aged guy skulking about Apple's Cupertino campus wearing jeans and a black turtleneck. But Apple really truly deeply wants us to believe that, in yet another miracle, St. Steven is back on the ball, just a few weeks after upgrading his internal organs.

Last week's Wall Street Journal story about Jobs undergoing a liver transplant in April was followed immediately by a) a bland statement in a press release allegedly made by Jobs, and b) a few suspiciously convenient sightings of the Apple icon at the company's HQ.

Hey, if Steve really does feel well enough to return to work just weeks after swapping out one of his more important organs, then more power to him. Let's hope he remains on top of the Apple pile for another 10 years. But I smell the fetid stench of yet another PR move designed to hide the real story about the man and his health. And that ain't right.

So far, the story has gone from "Steve's fine and it's none of your beeswax why he's so damned skinny," to "Steve's just taking a break to deal with this little hormone imbalance, nothing to see here," then "Liver transplant, what liver transplant?" and finally "Hey, Steve's back -- you may all now return to worshipping him as the Man-God he is."

[UPDATE: I've been hearing from some readers who seem to believe I wish Jobs ill. Nothing could be further from the truth. I hope he makes a full and lasting recovery. The world (and this gig) would be a far lesser place without him. I do think, however, that he's not done right by anyone by keeping his illness a secret. And I think the whole notion that Jobs must return by the end of June -- or, at least, appear to have returned -- is silly. I think he should take as long as he needs to get well. Is that more clear?]

Normally, I think someone's personal health condition should be just that -- personal. But Steve Jobs isn't just a person any more. He's an institution. He's the straw that stirs the drink, the cold crisp taste that quenches our thirst for groovy gadgetry yet still leaves us wanting more.

Jobs has quite deliberately made himself the public face of his company. His products don't speak for themselves, he speaks for them. And though thousands of talented people are involved in creating and marketing those products, Jobs is virtually the only one anybody sees.

The difference between Apple with Jobs and Apple without Jobs is the difference between The Beatles and Beatlemania. They are not the same company. And while that may not be evident over the last six months, it will become quite clear over the longer haul.

The Mercury News' Chris O'Brien says Apple fans, employees, and shareholders have a right to feel used and misled:

To not level with this legion of fans, who have invested emotionally in buying and praising the company and its products, strikes me as a betrayal of a special relationship. The folks who line up overnight for the iPhone, who blog about their devotion to Apple, who help spread that veneer of cool, deserve better. By not being straight with these fans, Apple risks breaking that bond of trust.

The New York Times' Joe Nocera notes that Jobs's state of well being is just the beginning of the questions Apple should answer, but probably won't:

If Mr. Jobs had retired from Apple -- or had taken an open-ended leave -- then I would say yes, it's his business and not his investors'. But he didn't do that. He took a six-month leave, which ends on Monday. Already, he is reportedly back at work. But what does that mean? Is he fully back in the saddle? Is he part time? Is he involved only in big strategic decisions? Is he back to his old micro-managing self? Have we now reached the point, in other words, where his health is impinging on his ability to run Apple? That's the real question, isn't it? Are Mr. Jobs's health problems affecting his work?

Apple PR wouldn't say "manure" if they had a mouthful of it, and that's the way Jobs wants it. But that's not the way it should be.

When you're CEO of -- let's just say it, the top consumer electronics brand on the planet -- you can't be both a public figure and a private person. Jobs's situation is different than that of say, Madonna or A-Rod. Thousands of employees and billions of dollars are riding on the man's health. Even the mighty Saint Steven can't just draw the veil and say go away.

But knowing Jobs, it's almost certain he'll continue to try.

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Robert X. Cringely

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