Jobs Returns, But Who's Running the Show?

Steve Jobs, as promised or projected, returned to work today just as Applehas consistently said he would since taking his medical leave in January. "We look forward to Steve's return at the end of June" has been an almost recurring taped playback from Apple officials in Jobs absence. Sometimes they'd deliver that response to other questions, just to see if you were paying attention. (Kidding.)

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On a serious note, while Cupertino is happy to have Jobs back, Apple will have to face some deeper questions that the company won't be able to shuck and dive from. Jobs did return today, according to official word from Apple, but only in a part time capacity, working a few days at the office and the remainder from home. I won't quibble with Jobs' part time status, since Apple -- splitting hairs -- merely said he would return to work at the end of June, but never said whether that meant full or part time. Maybe those of us covering the company should have asked?

But by and large it really doesn't matter. Full time, part time, Jobs lives and breathes Apple, whether he's physically at the office or some place else. No one, most certainly not me, doubts Jobs dedication to Apple.

And that's where things now get a little dicier for Jobs, Apple and team. This isn't about dedication, it's about responsibilities, duties, management and control. Tim Cook, Apple's chief operating officer, has done yeoman's work keeping this company on track in Jobs' absence. Innovation continues to be robust, products are coming to market on time, the company's cash position continues to swell, the stock has performed admirably. Cook should be lauded.

However, Cook never assumed the role of "chief executive officer," or even "acting CEO," and Jobs never relinquished his title, Apple is under no legal pressure to spell out a division of responsibilities between the two. Jobs left on medical leave, and left day to day responsibilities to Cook, according to the letter Jobs released at the time of his departure.

Now that Jobs has returned, if even as a part timer, it stands to reason that day to day responsibilities will shift back to him. When that shift occurs, Apple ought to disclose it. If the shift already has occurred, Apple ought to disclose it. If it's still a gray area, and both Jobs and Cook are running day to day together, as most normal CEO/COO relationships tend to go, Apple ought to disclose, or at least reiterate that.

Shareholders have a right to know who is running the show. Assumptions aren't good enough. Suppositions aren't good enough. Letting investors connect the dots isn't good enough. Look, to his credit, even while on medical leave, Jobs might have ceded day to day responsibilities, but he never relinquished "control" of the company, even saying in his original note that "As CEO, I play to remain involved in major strategic decisions while I am out." Because the titles didn't change, Apple can make the argument that it doesn't need to disclose anything regarding division of responsibilities between Cook and Jobs, because nothing changed.

That doesn't mean the company wouldn't be well served to remind investors that Jobs is indeed in charge, and in control. The company's earnings come up in a few weeks, and while Jobs' appearances on the Apple conference calls have been sporadic, if not very rare, a cameo by the CEO this time around might be a really good idea. It'd be good to hear from the guy who's "still" in charge, and now back in the office, if only part time for now.

Sneaking Jobs into a press release about iPhone sales to show he's "back" isn't good enough. Merely saying Jobs is "back" isn't good enough either. A short note from Jobs, thanking his supporters, fans, investors and employees for their faith and prayers would be a stand-up move, and the kind of reassurance that everyone who cares about him would appreciate. The time has come for Jobs to step up, and step out from the shadows. If he's back, really back, he owes this to the millions who care.

Questions? Comments?