Apple executives answered questions about the company's products and the state of the Korean technology market Tuesday, but they offered no insight into the most pressing issue before the world's most valuable technology company: Is Steve Jobs coming back?
Jobs told Apple employees in an e-mail Monday that he is taking time off to "focus on my health." He remains CEO during his medical leave, but Chief Operating Officer Tim Cook has taken charge of all the company's day-to-day operations.
How the management change will affect Apple's business and whether Jobs is likely to return are open questions right now. Apple didn't talk about Jobs during the company's hourlong quarterly earnings call Tuesday and none of the financial analysts on the line asked about the future of the man named "CEO of the Decade" by Fortune Magazine.
"I can't believe nobody asked the question," said Brian Marshall, an analyst with Gleacher & Co. "It was a pretty disappointing quality of questions," he said. He couldn't say why the issue of Jobs' health and his future at Apple didn't come up. "I guess people just assume that Steve's going to be CEO forever," he said.
The closest COO Tim Cook came to addressing the issue was in the question-and-answer period, when he said Apple had a great product pipeline but refused to say how far that pipeline stretches out. "That's part of the magic of Apple," Cook said. "And I don't want to let anybody know our magic because I don't want anybody copying it."
While Apple is thought to have a few years' worth of products already planned, some observers worry that if Jobs doesn't return, then Apple will suffer without his high standards and dynamic leadership.
Apple slumped after Jobs was forced out of the company in the 1980s. Since he returned and launched Apple's revival in 1997, no other technology CEO is seen as so completely coupled to his firm's success. It is "hard to imagine a replacement for Jobs' vision, his unparalleled and charismatic marketing leadership and his ability to drive the company to exacting standards and products," Sanford Bernstein analyst Toni Sacconaghi said in a research note Tuesday.
He called Apple's level of disclosure about Jobs' health problems "inadequate," but didn't ask any further questions about Apple's CEO on Tuesday's call.
Jobs has been in poor health since he was diagnosed with a rare form of pancreatic cancer in 2004. This is his third medical leave since he took a month off to recover from pancreatic surgery nearly seven years ago. He also took nearly five months off in early 2009, during which time he underwent a liver transplant, and -- according to a recent report in Fortune -- treated his cancer with a special type of "hormone-delivered radiotherapy" at Switzerland's University Hospital of Basel.
When he left in 2009 Jobs said when he expected to be back at work, but this time he didn't say when he expects to be back. The idea of an Apple without Jobs has spooked some investors, who sold off Apple's stock after the news was made public. By the end of trading in the U.S. Tuesday, Apple's stock [AAPL] had dropped nearly 8 percent, to $340.65.
Apple's results for the quarter were remarkable, however. Revenue grew by 71 percent year over year during the last three months of the year, said the other executive on Tuesday's call, Chief Financial Officer Peter Oppenheimer. "We sold more Macs, iPhones and iPads than in any previous quarter in Apple's history," he said.
Gleacher & Co.'s Marshall believes that Cook will be made CEO by year's end, with Jobs staying on as some sort of senior adviser. "Obviously Jobs is irreplaceable as the industry's innovator, but he has more pressing matters today than being CEO," he wrote Monday in a research note.
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