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The Curious Case of Steve Jobs

To begin, a disclosure: I do not, nor have I ever, owned any Apple stock. I do, however, own a few Apple products like an iPhone, a Shuffle, and Apple TV. But then it's hard to find someone who doesn't own an iSomething these days. I write all this to preface my comments about Steve Jobs' mysterious health problems. Just what is the truth about his situation?

This week, thanks to an e-mail from Jobs sent to staff, we learned that his condition is now "more complex" than he originally thought, and consequently he'll be taking a six-month leave of absence. Apple's COO Tim Cook will take over day-to-day operations. But this has been a slow and awkward process. You see, just a little more than a week ago, we heard that Jobs was suffering from a treatable form of hormonal imbalance (you could just hear the collective "Huh?" when that diagnosis came out) and wouldn't be appearing at the annual MacWorld gathering. Last year, during the Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco (that I attended), Jobs looked very thin and the official Apple response was that he was suffering from a "bug." In 2004, Jobs battled a rare form of pancreatic cancer with a tricky surgical procedure called a "Whipple" and apparently moved on. See where this is all going? Because I don't. And that's because Apple is uber secretive at the best of times and like the location of an NSA holiday party the rest of the time. We only ever learn what they -- or he -- want to tell us. Case closed. Or is it?

(Click here for CNET's complete coverage of Apple.)

Look, I know you could argue that anyone's health is a private matter and speculation is useless. But Jobs is unlike any other CEO today with his vision and showmanship. Does he personally assemble every iPod in his garage? No. (I'm pretty sure he doesn't have time for that.) And while there are thousands of employees at Apple and some executives waiting in the wings to permanently take his place (like Cook and senior VP Phil Schiller, should that be necessary), Jobs is an iconic leader who manages to convince a great many people that they should spend a sizable amount of money on tech products that look prettier than everything else. Not to diminish the significance of Apple's computers and gadgetry, especially within the past several years, but it's Jobs' passion that infuses them with a combination of counter-culture and cool beyond the initial appearance.

Jobs has put himself out there, on stage, for all the world to see and judge. He appears to revel in the spotlight. But of course it's all just smoke and mirrors. The buying public (and media) doesn't really know Jobs or understand why he insists on wearing the black shirt and jeans or have any insight into what now ails him. We just see that he's losing weight and appears gaunt. And the company isn't offering anything beyond controlled snippets of what's happening (as per usual). When it comes to product announcements, this environment of strict corporate secrecy is a source of endless frustration for journalists seeking an advance on a story (except for a select few reporters who have been accused by some of being too cozy with Apple). But in this case, it's also rather annoying for many investors and consumers who associate Steve Jobs with their iSomethings and want to know where the company is headed. A notable drop in Apple's stock price this week illustrates the connection and the concern.

All right, so where does this leave us? Answer: nowhere. The only person who truly know what's happening to Steve Jobs is Steve Jobs. OK, and his family and his doctors. And maybe some close friends or colleagues. So we await the next press release or e-mail about his health, and we're left questioning each other and the effect of his disappearance on Apple's future. The bottom line is that there's really no way to confirm anything about any person's health unless they or someone medically involved with the situation comes forward. Could Steve Jobs return from this leave of absence? Sure. And who doesn't wish him well? But it's also not hard to see it as a transition period.

Until next time, stay connected.

ADDENDUM: Within a few hours of writing this post, CNBC reports that Steve Jobs is considering a liver transplant. And so it continues.