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Apple's Steve Jobs, on medical leave until June, won't attend attend the company's annual shareholders meeting this Wednesday, fueling rumors that Apple's savior is phasing himself out.

Also, the privacy-loving convalescent is no longer instant-messaging with his chat buddies. Apparently.

That first announcement is news, reported by the ever-reliable Bloomberg.com.

The second is merely a flimsy rumor making the rounds of the intertubes.

First, the first: Since his return to Apple in 1997, after which he pulled the Cupertino Fruit Company out of its death spiral, Jobs hasn't missed one of his company's annual stakeholder gatherings.

That perfect-attendance streak is about to be broken.

Apple announced last month that Jobs was going to step down from day-to-day duties as Apple's CEO and take a medical leave until late June. Since then, there has been turmoil in the fanboi ranks.

Some observers - especially those with a financial interest in Apple's future - demand that Jobs come clean and reveal all relevant details of his apparenly serious medical condition.

Others insist that Jobs be allowed his privacy and that his condition is a personal matter to be shared by him only when and how he chooses.

This Wednesday, however, those arguments won't be conducted merely on blogs and news sites. Apple shareholders will be able to ask questions when face-to-face with the company's Board of Directors, which include such luminaries as Inconvenient Truther Al Gore, Intuit Chairman Bill Campbell, and Google CEO Eric Schmidt.

However, with the SEC reported to be investigating how Apple has handled disclosures about Jobs's health, Apple's directors may borrow a page from government officials who find themselves on the hot seat, and merely say, "We can't comment because of an ongoing investigation."

The second "announcement" - that Jobs has ceased chatting with his peeps - is more troubling. Both because of what it may imply and because it reveals the lengths to which people will go to find any hint of the extent of Jobs's illness.

Apparently, an acquaintance of the source of the rumor who had been a regular IMer with Jobs told him that the on-leave CEO is no longer keeping his customary online hours and has recently disappeared from chat entirely.

The reasons for Jobs's absence - if, in fact, this rumor is even true - could be legion. Possible explanations range from Jobs simply kicking back with a frosty beverage to Jobs kicking the proverbial bucket.

Our preferred explanation: Jobs had to reboot his blessedly crash-proof Mac to install the recent Mac OS X security update, and he doesn't have iChat listed among his System Preferences > Accounts > Login Items.

Or he could simply have deleted that loose-lipped leaker from his buddy list.

Those who talk about it don't know, and those who know aren't talking about it - at least until the Wednesday shareholders meeting. ®

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