The fact that Jobs is taking a break from his medical leave has the cult of Apple watchers in a tizzy. Will he really give the keynote, or just pass the mic to other execs? Could this mark the return from his medical absence? And is Jobs’ presence a sign that he thinks iCloud is something very, very big?
Maybe. But it’s not like he’s been hiding in a cave since his leave started in January. Jobs demonstrated the new iPad models at a news conference in March. And in April, he answered questions from reporters on the iPhone location-data brouhaha. So it’s not like the company has been keeping him hidden until they were ready to announce his return, or that he’s only showing up to announcements of wholly new products or services.
Surely, as the founder of Apple and one of the creative visionaries behind many of these products and ideas, Jobs wants to be part of their unveiling, or wishes to help deflect criticism about their features. As it’s sure to be for any good founder or leader, it’s hard to stay away from the company you love and the products you’ve helped bring to life. And yes, there are few people with as much of a knack for giving presentations and drumming up excitement for a new gizmo as Steve Jobs, who’s made a veritable art form of it.
But while his appearance may reassure some investors and Apple fans that he’s doing well enough to stand before a crowd—even if there is no word on his return—it will do little to reassure them that the company will be just fine without him. Jobs’s trotting out for all these major events, even if other executives are involved, sends the message that he’s still very much a part of the public face of the company, and is surely intimately involved on the inside, even if not every day.
That may be exactly the message Apple’s board is trying to telegraph. But it faces a tricky dilemma in how much to let Jobs continue to be the public face of the company during his leave. If Jobs sits on the sidelines and doesn’t participate, investors are sure to think his time as CEO is drawing to an end. Yet if he shows up to every news conference, presentation and delicate media interview, he won’t be doing much to instill confidence in how the company could run without him.
It can’t hurt for Jobs to play a part in the conference Monday if his medical leave is nearing its end. Even if it’s not, it’s unlikely much harm would come from another public appearance. But if the leave is expected to drag on a good deal longer, or if another one is possible—this was, after all, his second leave in two years—there will come a point sooner rather than later when it would be better to let Cook run the show. The confidence investors have in Jobs is no small thing; if his leave is expected to last much longer, he should help them become more confident in the leaders around him, too.
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