Steve Jobs’ Return is Vaporware

Today’s Wall Street Journal story about Steve Jobs’ return is classic media manipulation. The story’s timing—days before Apple convenes its Worldwide Developer Conference—and seemingly single source, “a person familiar with the matter,” stinks of corporate leak.

I challenge WSJ reporters Yukari Iwatani Kane and Joann Lublin to dispute my assertion that their main source was from inside Apple and mostly likely someone in corporate communications. Yukari and Joann can’t do so, for they must protect that source and future Apple leaks.

Selective leaks are common in corporate America. They just don’t get written about much. Seeing as how it’s Dress Down Friday, I’m going to dress down Apple and the Journal. Disclosure: I am a digital WSJ journal subscriber since 1996; yes, I pay for the stuff. 🙂

The allegedly leaked Journal story solves many, many problems for Apple ahead of WWDC and sets up introduction of the next iPhone(s). Quickly:

  • The return of Apple’s CEO is news everywhere today. The publicity builds up excitement for new iPhone(s) announcement, early as June 8.
  • Steve’s WWDC keynote absence would otherwise have detracted from Apple’s Monday announcements. Now his imminent return will punctuate every blog and news story.
  • Suspicion that Steve might make a WWDC keynote appearance will drive up press attendance and coverage; no offense to Apple marketing chief Phil Schiller.
  • News of Steve’s return is good for Apple shares, which remain vulnerable despite recent gains and imminent announcement of new iPhone(s).

It’s no coincidence the allegedly leaked story ran in the Wall Street Journal. WSJ reporters were sure to write just the kind of story Apple needed, with just a little prompting. Please don’t misunderstand: I don’t disparage but praise the reporters. It’s because they were sure to fill in the blanks that the leaker could provide the seeds of information. The two reporters wrote a thorough story, which, despite their efforts at impartiality, still works for Apple—if for no other reasons than topic (Steve Jobs) and timing (three days before WWDC). The story even offers an Apple share safety net, of sorts:

The past five months without Mr. Jobs have given investors confidence that Apple can run smoothly without him. Apple’s shares have risen 68 percent since Mr. Jobs announced his leave Jan. 14, compared with a 24 percent increase in the Nasdaq Composite Index over that period.

Apple shares closed at $143.74 yesterday and opened at $145.50 this morning. The Journal story appears in today’s paper but posted online late yesterday. So Apple shares got some after-market bang.

But the Journal story is missing something really, really, really important: Substantive information when Steve Jobs might return as CEO. Yukari and Joann put in the right qualifications about Steve’s status:

It isn’t clear whether Mr. Jobs would return to his full set of duties immediately. But whatever role Mr. Jobs officially takes up, many Apple watchers think Chief Operating Officer Tim Cook will continue to run the day-to-day operations as he had been doing even before Mr. Jobs went on leave.

The qualification appears late in the story, somewhat contradicting headline: “Jobs Ready to Return to Apple Helm.” Of course, the zillions of blogs and stories posting today are largely about his imminent return.

When would that be? Right now, the news is nothing more than vaporware. Unless Steve Jobs reports for duty as CEO on Monday and walks out onto the WWDC stage, his return is vaporware.

Classically, for software, vaporware announcements seek to achieve some kind of company goal. The product might never ship, but the news generates buzz and, when effective, uncertainty and doubt about competitors’ stuff.

I’m not suggesting that Steve Jobs won’t return as CEO. But I am asserting that today’s news about his imminent return is really vaporware. Apple gains huge PR bang, and, of course, the WSJ gets loads of inbound links and story references.

Please forgive my looking for more PR conspiracies. Today’s news will effectively obscure and taint much of the Palm Pre coverage. Major Pre reviews posted yesterday, and the smartphone goes on sale tomorrow. The Pre is reportedly the biggest iPhone competitor released to date. The Steve Jobs returning story will be inserted in many Pre launch blogs and stories because of iPhone, which mention is all the more likely in most stories now. Isn’t that what vaporware is for?