Dispatches from the Steve Jobs Rumor Mill

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Robert Galbraith / Reuters

Apple Inc. CEO Steve Jobs speaks at Apple's "Let's Rock" media event in San Francisco on Sept. 9, 2008

Thanks to the CIA-grade secrecy that surrounds all goings-on at Apple, the rumor mill always works overtime just prior to any scheduled Apple event. This year, with the recent surprise announcement that CEO Steve Jobs would not be keynoting at the annual Macworld Expo on Monday, there's even more prognostication and persiflage to cut through.

Most of it, of course, has to do with Jobs himself, who has battled pancreatic cancer for four years and has been looking particularly gaunt since the summer. A spokesman said Jobs would not be giving the Macworld keynote because Apple was severing ties with the event, which is run by IDG, an outside publishing company. (See pictures of Steve Jobs on the job.)

That sounded fishy, since a typical Fortune 500 company would have politely pulled the plug sooner rather than wait until the last minute. Then again, even in the best of times, Jobs doesn't observe normal conventions and does as he damn well pleases. In January 2002, an international affiliate of TIME.com accidentally broke an embargo the night before Jobs was set to deliver a Macworld address to unveil the flat-panel iMac. (It was my story; I know.) I later heard that Jobs was so upset that he told his handlers he wasn't going to give the speech; he'd simply cancel the keynote. They had to spend a significant amount of energy talking him off the roof. So it's entirely possible that he decided to blow off IDG at the last minute.

But then last week, the tech blog Gizmodo cited a "previously reliable source" who claimed that the current cancellation was due to Jobs' "rapidly declining" health. And that sounded plausible as well. After all, Jobs hadn't been seen in public for months. Apple had to know that its Macworld news was bound to raise questions about its CEO — why didn't Apple simply put him on CNBC or something?

Shortly after the Gizmodo item appeared, the tech blogger Robert Scoble fired back that he was in a Palo Alto frozen-yogurt shop supposedly frequented by Jobs and was told by a server that Jobs had been in for yogurt a "couple of days ago" and looked healthy. (For those doubting Thomases who say Jobs is a vegan and would never eat yogurt, the store in question serves a lactose-free soy product as well. So there.)

On Monday, Jobs released a statement debunking the fears about his health. "I have been losing weight throughout 2008. The reason has been a mystery to me and my doctors," he said in the statement. "After further testing, my doctors think they have found the cause — a hormone imbalance that has been 'robbing' me of the proteins my body needs to be healthy."

In a separate statement, Apple's board said, "If there ever comes a day when Steve wants to retire or for other reasons cannot continue to fulfill his duties as Apple's chief executive, you will know it." In the end, of course, until Jobs actually does appear somewhere looking healthy — a cameo appearance at Macworld would be awesome — people will fret. As they should: the world will be a diminished place when Jobs steps down from Apple for good.

I'm hoping that Jobs will appear at a small get-together set to occur in a few weeks in Palo Alto. There, the team who developed the original Macintosh computer will gather to celebrate the 25th anniversary of that seminal desktop computer. Needless to say, Jobs has been invited. But even if he is healthy, it's far from certain that he'll attend. He rarely goes to Apple anniversary parties. To quote one of the invitees: "The old joke about Steve is he only shows up at the parties that he throws."

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