Will Steve Jobs come back to Apple as scheduled this summer? Maybe. But I would submit that he shouldn't.
I'll say it again: Steve Jobs should not come back as Chief Executive Officer of Apple.
Not "he will not," or guesses to that effect. He should not. It's not necessary, he's not needed and it can be argued it's not good for him or Apple.
Jobs said, in his open letter from mid-January, "...the curiosity over my personal health continues to be a distraction..." If Jobs comes back to Apple as the company's CEO, what makes anyone think that wil change? Even if Jobs comes back looking as hale and hearty as he has in the past, there will always be questions about his health. Granted, a lot of those questions are due to Apple obfuscating in the past regarding Jobs but that won't stop pundits, the media and the Mac Community from wondering and speculating about the issue. It has been and will continue to be a distraction for the company as long as Jobs is the face of Apple.
Look at it from two points of view: Does Apple need Jobs as CEO and does Jobs need to be Apple's CEO?
Tim Cook, from all outward appearances, has done his usual calm, cool and collected job as the replacement CEO as he has in the past as the company's Chief Operating Officer. We have not heard one single word questioning his ability to lead Apple through not only the internal turmoil Jobs' absence may have caused but also the external turmoil of the world economy at large.
Cook's leadership seems to have calmed investor's fears regarding the company. The stock has closed above US$100 for the past week with no signs of collapse on the horizon. Developers are pleased with the course of the iPhone 3.0 software announcements, due later this summer, and Snow Leopard is making steady progress.
Speaking of the iPhone 3.0 launch, did you notice who opened the presentation? You probably didn't because it wasn't Steve Jobs. But Apple proved that they can have a major event, invite the world's press and grab the community's attention without Jobs' presence.
Apple has announced new products and services without Steve Jobs. They are certainly working on even more surprises for us in the coming weeks and months. Does Apple actually need Jobs to simply introduce us to those products?
How about the other point of view: Does Jobs need to be Apple's CEO?
Remember when Jobs came back to Apple as CEO, he did so (seemingly) reluctantly. He was the "iCEO" (Interim CEO) for a very long time. The company spent a considerable amount of time and money trying to find a "real" CEO only to come to the realization that Jobs was the guy all along.
Make no mistake: Jobs did an amazing job as the CEO. He slashed the company's product line, streamlined operations, brought in new blood, energized the old guard and created or approved entirely new products and revenue streams for the company, putting Apple in market segments no one foresaw or expected.
But there were also considerable missteps. The Mac Cube and the stock options scandal spring immediately to mind. Jobs' well known (and mostly assumed) prickliness has occassionally been an issue. His well known desire for both his own personal privacy and Apple's corporate secrecy have also caused problems both inside and outside Apple.
So while Jobs may want to run the company, he doesn't need to.
Wouldn't Jobs be happier as a "Big Picture Guy?" A guy who doesn't need to deal with the minutiae of the day to day operations of the company. Doesn't need to deal with the media's seeming obsession with his health, his wardrobe, or where he parks. A guy who can focus, behind the scenes, on creating the next Great Product for one of the most remarkable companies in the world.
Why come back and subject himself to all of us peons questioning him, second guessing him, prying into his private life and his health? Why not be a "behind the scenes advisor" or even the company's official "Chief Idea Officer?" After all, it seems like he's already doing something similar. He said in his January letter, "As CEO, I plan to remain involved in major strategic decisions while I am out." Does anyone believe that Jobs is completely hands off during his recuperation?
He could still come back on special occasions to give a speech or a keynote if he felt like it and on his own terms to excite the masses. But Apple has shown they have plenty of people who can hold Jobs' remote and give a good presentation. After all, the exciting thing about an Apple presentation is never really about who gives the keynote but what they say and announce. Joswiak, Cook, Schiller, Forstall et al have shown they can give presentations that can get the media and community just as excited about new products and services as anything Jobs has done.
He could still be involved in the company he obviously loves but do so in the way of his choosing without having to be nearly as answerable to Wall Street, the media and the Mac Community.
And it would be healthier for Apple because as long as Steve Jobs is CEO, his very presence is commanding enough to distract not only the media, Wall Street and the Mac Community from Apple, it distracts Apple from the job Apple needs to do going forward.
Steve Jobs' time at Apple is far from over. His genius, drive, insight and determination are still needed at the company. But maybe, for his own good and that of Apple, he should step down as CEO and focus those amazing qualities in ways that don't distract from the company's mission -- continuing to lead the industry in innovation, imagination and nerve.
Shawn King has been an Internet Broadcaster for over 14 years and is the host of the Your Mac Life show.