You don't usually see a stock gain 4 percent on news that the CEO is ill, but that's exactly what happened to Apple this week. As we all know by now, Apple CEO Steve Jobs disclosed that he is being treated for a hormone imbalance that caused his obvious weight loss. Anyone familiar with Wall Street's often twisted logic knows that the stock bounced because the news wasn't worse. After all, there have been plenty of rumors that Jobs is suffering a recurrence of pancreatic cancer and may have to leave the company.
I'm glad that Jobs isn't sicker. But sooner or later, he will leave Apple, and it may occur in 2009. What will happen? The stock will tank, no matter how the news is spun. Many investors are convinced that Jobs is Apple and Apple is Jobs.
But Wall Street has it wrong.
The company will be just fine without him. Partly through the genius of Jobs and the team he built, and partly because his tenure coincides with the industry-wide shift away from proprietary computing dominated by Microsoft, Apple will remain an important and successful force in the technology industry.
Not your father's Apple
When Jobs rejoined Apple in 1997, the company was headed for the recycle bin. It remained stuck in a customer niche of graphics-oriented users and Microsoft-hating fanboys. It was even in danger of losing its hold on the education market.
In part, that sad state of affairs was due to unimaginative management by COO-turned-CEO Michael Spindler and then CEO Gil Amelio, a technology executive who understood chips -- he ran National Semiconductor for five years -- a lot better than he understood consumers.
Those two followed the chaotic reign of John Sculley, whose marketing savvy from his tenure at the disciplined PepsiCo didn't translate well at undisciplined Apple, resulting in a chaotic product line that confused customers and spread Apple's strengths too thin. Engineers' pet projects ran amok, leading to lots of half-baked technologies and a confused direction for the Mac. (Ironically, the Sculley-era chaos led Apple's board to choose first Spindler and then Amelio as more focused technocrats in a pendulum swing gone too far.)
But in a larger sense, the company appeared doomed because such strengths as it had (a knack for design and a computer that was easy to use and didn't crash every 10 minutes) were at odds with the industry's demands.
As computer technology really took hold in the 1980s and 1990s, business wanted standard products and standard software at a relatively low price point. Apple didn't offer that.
Because the company controlled the platform, its products weren't plagued by the panoply of incompatibilities familiar to Windows users. But because its control of the platform was so tight, it hadn't developed the huge ecosystem that made Windows products ubiquitous.
When it did try to loosen the reins with its move to more generic technology and its licensing of the Mac to clone makers to compete with the likes of Dell, Apple found its unimaginative, often cheaply made systems developed under Spindler and Amelio losing against both Windows PCs and its own Mac licensees.