Time for Apple to speak up on future leadership

February 17, 2011

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

By Robert Cyran

It’s time for Apple to speak up on the future. Steve Jobs is tech’s best executive. He’s also very private and extremely ill. More information on Apple’s plans post-Steve could calm the over-worked rumor mill, once again running full tilt. On the day Jobs was to meet President Barack Obama, the National Enquirer published pictures that purported to show a gaunt Jobs at the Stanford Cancer Center. Giving more details about succession would divorce legitimate desire for information from sordid demand for gossip.

Apple has divulged little information on Jobs’ health during his leaves of absence. What is known is that he has had surgery for pancreatic cancer, a liver transplant and is now on indefinite medical leave. Jobs is entitled to some privacy. But Apple has kept him as chief executive officer. Investors in the second most valuable U.S. company have a need to know how the tech giant would replace him in the event of his death because his status is important to them. To wit: even though Jobs’ health issues are well known, the stock took a hit from an image published in a sensationalist tabloid.

True, Apple has appointed an interim leader, Tim Cook, to run the day-to-day operations. He’s done a fine job in this role in the past. And the company’s board reviews succession annually in private. But it is fighting a shareholder proposal that the company make its plans public. Given Jobs’ outsize role at Apple, that’s a legitimate proposal. He co-founded the company, brought it back from the dead, and his unusual combination of technical knowledge, design nous and consumer feel are unmatched.

Whether any other executive — or collection of them — could have driven the production of the iPad, iPod and iPhone is an open question. He has an uncanny knack of creating horses when rivals’ more focus-group driven approach produces camels. This is one of — if not the biggest — reasons for Apple’s influence over consumer technology and its $330 billion market value. Outlining leadership plans would move the debate onto the more constructive topic of Apple’s strategy — and give Jobs some much-deserved privacy.

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