Macworld? Who cares. How's Steve?

January 6, 2009: 6:00 AM ET
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At last year's Macworld, Jobs introduced the Macbook Air – and speculation about his health intensified. Photo: Jon Fortt

Under Steve Jobs, ninja-like discipline has been the hallmark of Apple's communication strategy. He has guarded the details of the company's product launches so jealously that even some Apple executives don't know exactly what he will unveil next. So with Macworld just hours away, it is just plain weird to see the ailing Maestro losing control of his message.

But it's not exactly surprising. The key ingredient in Apple's (AAPL) message has long been Jobs himself. Since he retook the helm of Apple more than a decade ago, Jobs has positioned himself as supreme leader and chief marketer. He has guided every important product, explained every major strategy, and ensured that everyone knew he was the one calling the shots. In the process, Jobs promoted the idea that he and Apple are one and the same: to believe in Apple is to believe in Steve Jobs. This worked beautifully when Jobs was using his considerable celebrity to draw attention to the iMac, iPod, iPhone, and various other i-hits. Today, though, the Jobs obsession he created is taking attention away from the stuff that makes Apple money – its products – and doing so at a very inconvenient time.

Instead of anticipating the goodies Apple will unveil at today's widely-covered Macworld show in San Francisco, fans have been guessing why Jobs decided to skip the event altogether. At first, Apple insisted that Jobs' health had little to do with it – he opted out of his annual address for "political" reasons, the company claimed. But on Monday Jobs finally fessed up, saying in an open letter than he is undergoing treatment for a hormone imbalance that he believes has been causing him to lose weight for about a year. "The remedy for this nutritional problem is relatively simple and straightforward, and I've already begun treatment. But, just like I didn't lose this much weight and body mass in a week or a month, my doctors expect it will take me until late this Spring to regain it. I will continue as Apple's C.E.O. during my recovery," he wrote. "So now I've said more than I wanted to say, and all that I am going to say, about this."

If only it were that simple. Now that Jobs is sick and wants to be left alone, he might regret creating this cult of personality, but it's too late. Because Jobs has equated himself with Apple for all these years and built the company's marketing strategy on his own persona, it's unlikely that we've seen the end of this story. If he hasn't gained some weight by springtime, as his letter suggests he should with therapy, people will speculate about whether it's a hormone problem after all, and analysts will rightly expect an update during Apple's April and July conference calls. And all the while, there will be a considerable appetite for Steve Jobs health news, and for good reason: investors have billions of dollars riding on Apple's success, and Apple as we know it simply can't exist without Steve Jobs.

A lot of people disagree with that notion, by pointing out that Jobs has assembled a team of smart lieutenants who should be able to steer the company in his absence. This is true – to a point. The reality is that aside from Jobs, Apple's management team is stocked with role players. Operations chief Tim Cook is a logistics genius, but he hasn't displayed a knack for marketing. Meanwhile marketing chief Phil Schiller is no design expert, design chief Jony Ive probably couldn't lead the retail strategy, and so on, and so on. A great team, sure, but a bit like the old Chicago Bulls without Jordan.

None of this is a problem as long as Jobs is in place as the unquestioned leader who makes big decisions and handles the board of directors. Under his direction, Apple has earned a reputation for quickly developing bold products without getting endlessly mired in debate. But when Jobs goes away, then what? Will all of these smart Apple executives and board members simply line up behind Cook? Schiller? Ive? Probably not.

Without Jobs, Apple still has a lot of brilliant people, but lacks a unifying figure to march them all in a single direction. (If you've ever wondered what ails Microsoft (MSFT), this is it.) That's why Jobs's health matters a lot more than any Macworld keynote, and why Apple PR's half-truths and obfuscations are only making things worse.

So what should Apple do? How about this: Tackle the ongoing Jobs health saga head on by giving updates on his progress every quarter until he recovers or resigns. Otherwise the lack of information will continue to create a market for gossip, and will continue steal the limelight from Apple's products – a distraction the company can scarcely afford in a historic recession.

Of course, this level of disclosure isn't ideal. Anyone in Jobs's position would want privacy, and no one can blame him for trying to protect it. But Steve Jobs has spent years taking the stage and claiming the spotlight at events like Macworld, making himself too important for the world to ignore. For better or worse, he has succeeded.

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