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Can Apple manage without Steve Jobs?

Yes but, no but

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Column CEOs have been fired for doing what Steve Jobs is supposed to have been caught doing at Apple: backdating their share options to a time when they were worth less. Suppose it's true; and suppose he has to carry the can - will Apple manage without him?

Already some commentators are ready to wield the axe. Froma Harrop in the Seattle Times gave his opinion loud enough and clear enough: "Here's an iDea, Jobs: Quit fleecing stockholders!" Quote

Apple initially claimed that it had awarded 7.5 million stock options to Jobs at a special board meeting on Oct. 19, 2001. It turns out that the board meeting never happened — and that the options weren't issued until several months later, on Dec. 18, 2001.

Between those two dates the value of Apple stock had risen 15 per cent. In other words, "it seems that Jobs was given the right to buy Apple stock at $18.30 a share after it had already jumped to $21.01."

Hands in the till? Apple says "definitely not!" Quoting the Seattle Times again, "Apple argues that Jobs and other current executives were unaware of the phony records from the nonexistent October meeting. It also says that Jobs didn't really understand the accounting significance of backdating the options." [immoderate laughter off]

Oh, dear! Very funny. No, seriously: Can Apple survive if he goes?

Oh, sure. For at least a year. Probably the company won't get wound up for five years.

The company has always flourished with Steve at the helm. Like him or not, his reality distortion field has never been limited to those in the same room; he's bewitched customers, markets, and observers. When he was pushed out by the Pepsico kid he hired to make Apple a real corporation, the company slid and slid.

But this one will come back to bite him in the bum. History shows he doesn't need any friends in Wall Street. Not now.

When John Scully joined Apple, it was at its first peak - to launch the laser printer and desktop publishing. At that time, software developers always started their dreams on the Mac; and then, once the software was proven in the market, they drifted into "well, probably we could produce a PC version.." and eventually, something would appear, making it quite clear that the PC platform couldn't match up.

While Jobs was out, Mac lost its way in a fashion that makes Little Red Riding Hood look like a Texas Ranger. Developers were faced with "the yellow book and the blue book" choices about which version of the Mac they could write for - neither materialised. The market was offered Motorola-made Mac clones. It didn't like them.

And then, Steve Jobs came back, and the company came back to life, and started climbing back into the limelight. It isn't what it was, but it's profitable. Only an idiot could deny that the difference was: Steve Jobs himself.

Dealbreaker says the coverage has been "way off base" and he's innocent. Few other voices can be heard to take his side quite so firmly! but when Jobs says "it won't affect management at Apple" he's almost certainly right.

A Government probe is inevitable (already under way, and won't be cancelled) and the chance that it will exonerate Jobs seems small, whatever Al Gore's committee thinks.

But there's no earthly way Apple will be able to face the future without him. Even if they were legally required to appoint another CEO (they aren't) they'd make sure he stayed in charge, and obviously so. The alternative would be a collapse in the share price.

So is he fireproof? Hardly. Never underestimate the importance of the egos of those in finance. Steve Jobs has friends now, because they're all making money out of him on the trading floors. But company fortunes fall as well as rise, and at some stage, he'll have to go back to the Nasdaq Gang, and say: "Believe in me; this is an excellent deal!" when it's quite possibly a dodgy one.

For example, in a year's time, when he hasn't sold ten million iPhones, and needs major finance to recover lost ground, and the share price is slack, he'll be doing a presentation to financial analysts.

And they'll say: "Now Steve, you may not understand the financial implications of this..."

Of course, there might be those who are already shorting their options in anticipation. Not inside Apple, of course! - they wouldn't understand that, would they?

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