Is Steve Jobs Worried He's Running Out of Time?

After surviving pancreatic cancer and a liver transplant, Apple CEO Steve Jobs, pictured here, may be thinking about his legacy and cramming 10 years of plans into two years, an
After surviving pancreatic cancer and a liver transplant, Apple CEO Steve Jobs, pictured here, may be thinking about his legacy and cramming 10 years of plans into two years, an

By far the most illuminating nugget in Ken Auletta's recent New Yorkerarticle on Apple (AAPL) and Amazon (AMZN) is buried within four sentences toward the end. After describing how Apple CEO Steve Jobs is eager for publishers to see him as their ally -- savior, even -- Auletta quotes an "Apple insider" as saying that Jobs has "begun to think about his legacy."

"He's in a hurry to create in the next two years what he may have been thinking about in the next 10 years," Auletta's source says. "What keeps him going is his vision. Nothing is going to stop him, except death."

I wrote over two months ago that Jobs had clearly begun begun to think about how history will view him. If Auletta's source is to be believed, Jobs may feel that his time is running out.

Frenetic Behavior

I've never liked writing about Jobs's health -- the 55-year-old CEO survived pancreatic cancer and a liver transplant -- and I have no knowledge of his prognosis. That said, Jobs's health is a material issue for the company and its shareholders, and reporters can responsibly address it without being ghoulish. Apple is an incredibly well-run company with an outstanding cadre of top executives, including Tim Cook and Peter Oppenheimer, and I'm confident that it will continue to churn out wonderful products after Jobs has left the scene.

But if Jobs really does feel like he's running out of time -- as the quote from the Auletta piece suggests -- that may help explain his somewhat frenetic recent behavior, during a time in which he has dramatically thrust himself onto center stage with his latest creation, the iPad.

Apple watchers can't help but notice a sped-up, almost frantic quality to the way Jobs has been operating this year. It's almost as if he views himself as a besieged general -- surrounded by advancing forces and running out of time -- intent on making one last stand against the enemy, which, in Jobs's case, may be time itself.

Sense of Urgency

Some examples: Responding directly to customers via email -- something he never used to do. Dispatching police to bust down the door of a blogger who got his hands on an iPhone prototype. Publicly disparaging rivals and third-party software developers. In one notable case earlier this year, Jobs launched a blistering attack against mobile rival Google (GOOG) -- which has aggressively positioned its Android mobile operating system as an open alternative to the iPhone -- calling the Web search giant's "Don't be evil" motto "bullshit."

These seem to be the actions of a man who feels an increasing sense of urgency.

Even the hype surrounding the iPad launch had an almost historical-event quality to it. The iPad's launch narrative was designed to convince the world that the device represents the culmination of Jobs's Holy Trinity of Apple gadgets: iPod, iPhone, iPad. Jobs's zeal for the iPad -- he seems convinced that it represents a kind of salvation for the beleaguered publishing industry (a dubious prospect) -- is matched only by his insistence that the product's software platform remain restricted to applications that will run on it and it alone.

Attracting Antitrust Attention

Apple's requirement that programmers create software that will only run on Apple products has angered many developers, who now find themselves forced to build multiple versions of the same application for separate platforms -- Apple's iPhone, Google's Android and Research in Motion's (RIMM) BlackBerry. With Hewlett Packard's (HPQ) $1 billion purchase of Palm (PALM), developers must now build yet another version, for the Palm WebOS platform.

Virtually every mobile application developer I've spoken with over the last two years has relayed a complaint something like this: "I wish I could just build one version of the software that would work across platforms, but the fragmented nature of the current mobile environment means I have to build multiple versions, making the development process longer, more complex, and more expensive."

Apple's restrictive rules have gotten the attention of federal regulators, who are now debating which agency should launch a potential "antitrust inquiry into Apple's new policy of requiring software developers who devise applications for devices such as the iPhone and iPad to use only Apple's programming tools," according to a report in Monday's New York Post. According to the paper, regulators are considering whether Apple's policy "kills competition by forcing programmers to choose between developing apps that can run only on Apple gizmos or come up with apps that are platform neutral, and can be used on a variety of operating systems."

A Frontal Assault on Adobe

In a personal blog post recently, Adobe Systems (ADBE) "platform evangelist" Lee Brimelow succinctly summed up how many software developers feel about Steve Jobs: "Go screw yourself, Apple." In fact, Apple's restrictive policies may have already begun to backfire. "Developers I know aren't getting less interested in Google's Android platform, they're getting more interested -- Apple's actions are enhancing that interest," former Sun Microsystems CEO Jonathan I. Schwartz wrote in a recent post.

Speaking of Adobe, another example of Jobs's apparent urgency to finalize his legacy as quickly as possible came last week, with an extraordinary attack against the maker of the ubiquitous Acrobat Reader and Flash video software. Apple had already made it clear that Flash wouldn't be allowed on the iPad as a matter of policy. But that wasn't enough: Jobs had to issue a 1,700-word jeremiad listing all the reasons why. This is the essence of his screed boiled down: "Flash sucks."

As my colleague Dawn Kawamoto asked, "Why even bother to write a four-page letter on the topic?" One possible answer is that Jobs may feel he needs to take advantage of the bully pulpit while he's got it.

Jobs's Legacy: Visionary or Villain?

Apple-watchers frequently characterize Jobs as a deity (and only half-jokingly), and it's clear that he's now making an aggressive, even urgent, push to leave an indelible stamp on the company's products and policies -- as if he hadn't accomplished that already.

Jobs clearly loves Apple as if it were is his child -- after all, the company represents his life's work. But like an overbearing parent who drives a young athlete to obsessively train in the hopes of producing a superstar, thus ensuring the parent's legacy, Jobs may end up actually doing damage to Apple over the long term.

The irony is that in his zeal to leave Apple "in his own image," to borrow from biblical language, Jobs's ultimate legacy may be that of a controlling tyrant similar to the "Big Brother" figure Apple famously positioned itself against in its iconic 1984 TV ad.

As a life-long user of Apple products and admirer of Steve Jobs, I sincerely hope that the man remains at the helm of the company for many years to come. But ultimately, Jobs is just human, and the company will continue to flourish without him, given the abundant talent among its ranks. Instead of attacking rivals and seeking to maximize Apple's advantage in the short term, perhaps, he should be more focused on Apple's long-term health, as the industry moves inexorably toward ever-more-open standards and platforms.