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Apple's Ailing Transition

For months, Apple and its CEO Steve Jobs have parried growing rumors about Jobs' declining health. Jobs' alarming weight loss was ascribed most recently to a "hormonal imbalance" that Jobs himself said could be simply rectified without impacting his day-to-day duties at the company.

But now we hear Steve Jobs is sick. Sick enough to take a six-month leave of absence from Apple.

That Jobs is ill should come as no surprise. After all, he survived a harrowing bout with a rare form of pancreatic cancer in 2004. And despite the initial denials and subsequent descriptions of his malady, it was clear to anyone with a good set of eyes that something was seriously wrong with Jobs' health.

Then came the announcement that Jobs would not make a keynote address at the Macworld Expo -- the first time he has failed to appear at the conference since returning to Apple in 1997. And now we get news that Jobs is leaving the company for six months. By comparison, his earlier bout with pancreatic cancer, which required surgery, shelved the energetic CEO for about a month.

As a student of the Cold War (I was a Soviet studies major, of all things, in college), the slow-motion play of events and revelations in this drama sadly mirrors the shaky leadership successions of the old Soviet Union. Kremlinologists were left to scan May Day parade photos and parse the mentions of key Politburo figures in each day's Pravda newspaper to glean hints of where the country might go to next. Facts were impossible to come by, but trends couldn't be hidden. A missed presentation here, a sudden vacation there, and soon evidence mounted that the current leadership might be in real crisis.

Yesterday, we were finally given stark confirmation of what a lot of us feared all along: That Steve Jobs is, in fact, seriously ill and that his leadership of one of the most vital companies in the computing and consumer electronics space is in peril.

By all accounts, interim CEO Tim Cook is a perfect candidate to fill in during Jobs' absence. Well-liked and pragmatic, according to reports, Cook already served once as interim CEO, guiding Apple during Jobs' 2004 absence. But the questions about Apple's future will quickly mount, should it become clear that Jobs will not be returning soon to the company he founded.

For good or ill, the past couple of years have produced a pair of epic leadership transitions in our industry. At Microsoft, we saw a years-long process that was transparent, incremental and controlled. Now at Apple we're witness to an entirely different type of transition -- one shrouded in secrecy and forced by events.

What are your thoughts on how Apple has handled the issue of Steve Jobs' illness? What should Apple do to ensure that it retains the confidence of third-party developers and customers going forward? E-mail me at [email protected].

Posted by Michael Desmond on 01/15/2009

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