Thursday, June 12, 2008

Jobs' health questioned again

At its Worldwide Developers Conference on Monday, the company announced a new 3G version of the iPhone in a push to target mainstream consumers. But a strong undercurrent at the event focused on the emaciated appearance of co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs. While Jobs looked especially gaunt in his trademark black turtleneck and faded jeans, other Apple executives spent more time on the stage during his keynote address -- a notable move for an executive who typically spends much of his speech rallying the Mac faithful and introducing many products himself.

The press is so far treading with caution. The first observations on Jobs' health came from the blogosphere. Sites such as Silicon Valley gossip blog ValleyWag and Silicon Alley Insider initially braved the touchy topic. Henry Blodget at Silicon Alley Insider apologized upfront for bringing up the personal subject, before wondering if Jobs has had a recurrence of the cancer that he successfully fought but kept hidden from investors until after his surgery.

The mainstream media has been somewhat more cautious. Dow Jones Newswires and New York City's favorite tabloid, the New York Post, have run stories on Jobs' appearance, as well as a technology blog by The Wall Street Journal. (the Journal, Dow Jones Newswires, the New York Post and MarketWatch are all owned by News Corp

Investors did not learn of Jobs' last bout with cancer until after his surgery. Fortune reported earlier this year that Jobs was diagnosed with a rare but treatable form of pancreatic cancer in 2003 and avoided surgery for nine months while he tried alternative remedies. Apple's board of directors sat on the news the entire time after consulting with attorneys, who reportedly advised the company that they could remain silent on the issue to investors.
Katie Cotton, an Apple spokeswoman, told reporters who inquired that Jobs was hit with a common bug two weeks ago and he's been on antibiotics, getting better day by day and didn't want to miss WWDC. "That's all there is to it," she told Dow Jones Newswires on Tuesday.

In the comparison with Warren Buffet, it should be noted that the billionaire investor -- also not known for showcasing details of his private life -- took pains to send out a press release before going into surgery to remove a benign growth in his colon in 2000.

Scathing comments on the posts and stories on this topic have accused the bloggers and writers of National Enquirer-like tactics and invading Jobs' personal privacy, showing how touchy the subject is. This column will also be surely attacked by Apple fanboys. But many investors, corporate governance experts and others consider news about a CEO's health material to the company's livelihood.
"For any firm, the health of the CEO is a material subject," said Kirk Hanson, executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. "For Apple, Steve Jobs' health and well-being are more central to the stock price -- and probably to the future of the company than any other single thing."

"It reminds me of the Kremlin watchers during the Communist era," Roger Kay, president of Endpoint Technologies, said of the recent chatter over Jobs' health. "Did Stalin sneeze?... So people have made the comparison with the control that Apple exerts. As a result people find themselves parsing everything."

Stalin, of course, did not live forever. If Jobs were to ever become ill again, I hope that Apple would disclose the news in a timelier manner to investors, who need the company to be more forthcoming and not a version of the Kremlin in Silicon Valley.