Steve Jobs is taking a medical leave of absence from Apple until June 2009, while staying involved in "major strategic decisions," according to a letter sent to company employees, posted on Apple's Web site, and distributed as a media advisory. "During the past week," Jobs writes, "I have learned that my health-related issues are more complex than I originally thought." Chief Operating Officer Tim Cook, often cited as a likely successor to Jobs, will handle day-to-day company operations.
How did Jobs go from recovering from a cold a few months ago to "complex" medical problems necessitating months off? It has been gradual.
First, despite his significant weight loss, Apple said that Jobs was "hit with a 'common bug.'" I, like many others, dismissed speculation, because - myself a former cancer sufferer - I thought the issue personal unless it affected his performance in the role. If it were to affect his performance and he wasn't being factual, he and the company's board of directors would face questions and possibly lawsuits about the disclosure of his health-related issues.
Then, just before Macworld Expo 2009, Jobs released a public statement saying that he was suffering from an unknown malady, diagnosed as a hormone imbalance. (See "Jobs Clears the Air on Health Issue," 2009-01-05.) No one knew precisely what was wrong, as his description was specific but lacked a condition name, but the board offered their support for his leadership.
Now, the problem is "more complex," still undisclosed, and apparently likely to require months of recovery. Bloggers and mainstream media columnists alike have been speculating that Jobs has had a recurrence of the pancreatic cancer for which he was operated on in 2004, or that a new and serious health condition would force him to step down.
However, many of us who follow Apple have been responding to this rampant speculation with "Shut up." Neither I nor most of the Mac journalists I know see Jobs as the avatar of all that is right and good at Apple, but instead as an effective leader who has made largely terrific decisions that thousands upon thousands of Apple employees have executed well. Jason Snell excellently countered the broad media trend of turning Jobs into Apple's godhead in an interview with Advertising Age.
Listen: We at TidBITS will all be sad if Jobs has a chronically debilitating or fatal illness. We'll find it a dark day when he takes off the mantle for good as Apple's chief. But the company doesn't rise and fall by him.
Jobs has recruited and forged a large team of executives, engineers, and marketers who understand how to make products people want. Decisions from Apple don't all originate at the top, despite the way the company is commonly viewed. We hear from past and present Apple employees that many of Apple's best decisions were made lower down and then approved at the top.
The culture that makes Apple work has been distributed throughout the firm. That's probably Jobs's most effective legacy.
We wish Steve Jobs a swift and complete recovery. And we expect Apple to tick along just as usual.