Apple seems to have learned from Bill Clinton. Like our randy former chief executive being questioned about his sex life, Apple handled Steve Jobs' ongoing health problems by making statements that were literally true, but ultimately misleading. That's going to have Apple watchers taking a microscope to every statement and action by Apple to find out what the company really means. But Apple watchers already are doing that, so Apple doesn't lose out.Ever since Jobs made a gaunt appearance at the launch of the iPhone 3G this summer, Apple has been stonewalling about the founder and CEO's health, while rumors flew about the recurrence of the cancer he was treated for in 2004. The rumors went into hyperdrive in December, when Apple announced abruptly that it was pulling out of Macworld and Jobs wasn't speaking.
Finally, Jobs posted a statement on the Apple site last week. He acknowledged he had a "hormone imbalance" that caused him to lose weight throughout 2008. He says it's being treated, and that he expects to regain his lost weight by spring.
That contrasts with Apple's earlier statement, on Dec. 16, announcing that this year would be Apple's last Macworld, and Jobs would not deliver his traditional keynote. At the time, Apple cited only business reasons for the withdrawal, saying trade shows have become a "very minor part of how Apple reaches its customers."
The statement didn't mention Jobs' health. As a matter of fact, it didn't mention Jobs at all -- it just said that Philip Schiller, Apple senior VP of worldwide product marketing, will deliver the keynote, a job which has been Jobs' for a decade.
Is Jobs' health anyone's business? Jupiter Research analyst Michael Gartenberg, and other Apple defenders, say no, it's a private matter. I disagree. Jobs' health is relevant as long as he has chosen to make himself a public figure. He is the face and spokesman for Apple, credited with its current success, and the company has no visible plan for succession. Investors identify Apple's success with Jobs, and they're afraid every time they think Jobs might become incapable of running the company. We see those fears when Apple's stock drops every time Jobs sneezes or stubs a toe.
If you are the CEO of a publicly traded company, anything that might affect your abilities to perform your duties is a matter of public record. That most emphatically includes your health. Don't like those rules? Retire. Take the company private.
And Jobs isn't just any CEO of any public company. Jobs has chosen to make himself the public face of Apple. He has worked to build a mystique around Apple, and focused that mystique on himself as its charismatic leader. If Jobs wants to take a piece of his privacy back, the company needs to be more communicative, and put other people in front of the cameras and microphone more frequently. (Indeed, this may be one of the motivations for Schiller taking over the Macworld keynote.) Until then, Jobs' health is going to continue to be a matter of public concern.