Saturday, 20 December 2008

Steve Jobs' no-win situation

Benjamin Franklin once told a tale of an old man riding a donkey, with his young son walking by his side in the muddy road. When passers-by criticized the old man for making his son walk in the dirt, he invited his son to join him on the donkey's back. But a new group of passers-by criticized this arrangement too, arguing that it was unfair on the donkey to make him bare such weight. So the old man dismounted, to walk alongside the young man on the donkey. But further criticism followed from yet another group, who criticized the young man for monopolizing the donkey at the old man's expense. Exasperated, the old man and young man responded by both walking, leading the donkey with no rider. But this arrangement also incurred the criticism of passers by, who argued that it was ridiculous for both men to walk in the dirt, when one of them could ride.

Whilst everyone is familiar with the phrase "you can't please them all," Franklin was making a different point. Sometimes you can't please any of them, and it's fruitless to try.

Steve Jobs finds himself in just such a predicament. As the press hounded Apple this year for information on Jobs' health status, the company responded by saying this was a personal matter. Fair enough, one might say. What could be more personal than someone's medical records? But this response didn't seem to satisfy a juvenile contingent within the media, who sought to whip up a controversy on a slow news day.

Jobs' charismatic and visionary leadership has played no small part in Apple's remarkable turnaround. And it is obviously for this reason that commentators are so antsy about his health. They have criticized the company for being too exposed to one single employee. In an attempt to rectify this perception of over-dependance, Jobs has, on more than one occasion, contrived to share the stage with other executives. But this seemingly reasonable step has only resulted in further hounding about Jobs' health. "He's not up to doing an entire keynote by himself?"

Franklin adds a characteristically wry and unexpected twist to the end of his tale. The two men, despairing of how they might please all passers-by, ultimately decided to abandon their donkey, and proceed on foot. Only to receive criticism from passers-by for embarking on such a grueling journey without adequate transport.

In a similar fashion, this week, Apple abruptly announced that it was pulling out of future MacWorld Expos, and Jobs would not be delivering a keynote this year. If they imagined that this might settle the journalists' rumblings, they were certainly wrong. Like Franklin's passers-by, they'll moan whatever the company does. They just like moaning.

Steve Jobs is a remarkable public speaker. His vision, passion and energy are infectious. His charisma is magnetic. There can be no better way to launch the company's products than with a keynote from the guy that supplies Apple with its vision. Who knows what tomorrow brings? Why worry? For today, let the guy do what he does best, and, like Franklin, pay no heed to the idle criticism of passers-by.

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