Steve Jobs Is Off the Job at Apple

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Robert Galbraith / Reuters

Steve Jobs in September 2008

Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who's been battling pancreatic cancer for the past four years, said this afternoon that he's taking a medical leave of absence until June. Apple shareholders, who've been given three different stories about Jobs's health during the past week, now no longer know what to believe, and hit the SELL button. In after hours trading the stock plunged 10% before rebounding slightly.

On Jan. 5, in a public email explaining why he would not be giving a keynote at the annual Macworld Expo, Jobs denied reports that he was in declining health. The charismatic founder has consistently maintained that he has a rare but treatable form of the disease, and attributed his emaciated appearance — first noticed during a press event during the summer — to a "hormone imbalance." Jobs, 53, said he had already begun treatment, which he described as "relatively simple and straightforward."

But today, Jobs sent an email to Apple employees asserting that "during the past week I have learned that my health-related issues are more complex than I originally thought." Jobs asked COO Tim Cook to take over Apple's day-to-day operations while he recuperated, but added that he planned to "remain involved in major strategic decisions."

Steve Dowling, an Apple spokesman, said the company had no comment beyond Jobs's email.

Cook heads Apple's Macintosh division and prior to joining Apple was VP of Corporate Materials at Compaq. He also spent more than a decade at IBM in leadership in manufacturing and distribution.

While Jobs's email appeared to shock shareholders, it did not surprise long-time Jobs watchers. The CEO is known for dissembling, perhaps as a tactic to mislead his competitors in the highly secretive and volatile consumer tech industry. In 2005, months before unveiling a video-playing iPod, for instance, he was routinely telling the press that he had no plans to build such a device. And on the eve of Macworld, according to a source, Jobs was maintaining that he'd be making a surprise appearance at the trade show. He did not show up, however.

Of course, today's news doesn't mean that Jobs's cancer has necessarily reappeared. After being diagnosed with cancer in 2004, the Apple co-founder had reportedly undergone a Whipple Procedure, a surgery that removed a tumor from his pancreas, and cut into his gallbladder, stomach, bile duct and small intestine. Some patients who have had the surgery live in constant pain and have difficulty digesting food and absorbing calories. In other words, Jobs could simply be suffering from the long-term effects of the surgery, and not a recurrence of his cancer.

The next big Apple event, the Worldwide Developer's Conference, is scheduled for June. Hopefully, Jobs will be back in the saddle and be there.

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Photos: Steve Jobs