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Analysis Steve Jobs has stepped away from his daily duties as Apple CEO, and by doing so, the famously-private tech kingpin has ignited rumors and speculation about his future with the company – and of the company's future without him.

Jobs' just-announced medical leave of absence is his third. The first began when he revealed in August of 2004 that he had undergone an operation to remove a cancerous tumor from his pancreas. The cancer was of the islet cell neuroendocrine type, and not the incurable adenocarcinoma variety. Apple COO Tim Cook took over for Jobs, managing day-to-day operations until Jobs returned to his Cupertinian duties that September.

In early January 2009, after telling the world the previous month that he wouldn't be presenting his traditional Macworld Expo keynote, Jobs released an open letter to the "Apple Community" in which he blamed a "hormone imbalance" for his weight loss, which was becoming apparent to even the most casual observer.

A week later, however, Jobs announced that he would take a leave of absence, saying that his health problems were "more complex" than previously thought.

Again, Cook took the reins, with marketing headman Phil Schiller filling in for Jobs at public appearances and product introductions.

In late June 2009, the internet buzzed with reports that Jobs had a liver transplant sometime in April – a fact confirmed days later by a spokesman for the Methodist University Hospital Transplant Institute in Tennessee, where Jobs received the transplant.

Jobs returned to work on a part-time basis at the end of June, and made his first public appearance in September at a roll-out of new iPod models, at which time he said that his new liver was from a young adult who had died in a car crash.

"I'm vertical, I'm back at Apple and loving every minute of it," Jobs told his cheering admirers at that event.

Since his return, though, Jobs has appeared increasingly frail. One unconfirmed report by a Reg reader who told us he had spotted Jobs in public, noted that he required help walking. On Monday, The New York Times cited an unnamed source who said that Jobs was coming into the office only about two days a week, and that he appeared "increasingly emaciated."

And now Jobs has again stepped away from the daily grind of running the world's second most valuable public company (in market capitalization terms), and again put Cook in charge.

"I love Apple so much and hope to be back as soon as I can," Jobs wrote in an email to Apple staff on Monday. "In the meantime, my family and I would deeply appreciate respect for our privacy."

When announcing his two previous leaves of absence, Jobs had indicated a date of return. Tellingly, this most recent announcement included no such surety, only "hope".

As a private citizen, Jobs most certainly deserves the privacy he requests. As the CEO of Apple, however, opinions differ as to how much information he is required to provide to investors about the severity of his condition.

"In this day and age, shareholders want to know everything," one former Security and Exchange Commission lawyer, Jacob Frenkel, told Bloomberg. "As a practical matter, in terms of Mr. Jobs’s personal health condition, they're entitled to know very little."

A former GE general counsel, Ben Heineman, disagreed, writing in The Atlantic's blog: "Under the securities laws, companies are required to disclose material information: usually defined as any information that would influence an investor's decision to buy or sell securities."

Heineman faults the SEC for not making clear what it means by "material", but concludes: "The SEC, which has been reluctant to promulgate rules on disclosure of CEO illness, should do so now. The latest secrecy by Jobs is not tolerable. And Apple, if it wishes to retain the loyalty of thoughtful (not emotional) shareholders, should also disclose the condition as a matter of basic principle regarding sound and fair investor relations."

The SEC, by the way, launched an investigation of Jobs' reluctance to give more health details during his 2009 absence, but failed to either report on that effort or clarify its guidelines on executive health disclosures.

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