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What will Apple do if Steve Jobs dies?

January 4, 2009 |  9:04 pm

Steve Jobs Some important questions can't be asked without sounding crass and insensitive. But there's no way around asking this one that's on everybody's mind, so here goes:

What is Apple's plan if CEO Steve Jobs dies?

The question of Jobs' health has been a live discussion thread since he announced in August 2004 that he had undergone surgery for pancreatic cancer. When Apple announced a few weeks ago that -- for the first time since his return to the Cupertino, Calif., company in 1997 -- he wouldn't deliver the keynote address at the annual Macworld exposition opening Tuesday in San Francisco, the chatter was reenergized for the umpteenth time.

Apple said a Jobs underling would give the keynote. It claimed that the change didn't have anything to do with its CEO's health. Instead, it said it didn't care about Macworld any longer because it had better ways to communicate with its faithful than by featuring its famous CEO at a big event where it had rolled out major products year after year.

Right.

With almost every Jobs health scare, Apple's stock has dropped a couple of percentage points. That happened in June, when he appeared at a Mac developers' conference looking thin and pale ("a common bug," the company said) and in August, when Bloomberg News briefly flashed his obituary on the wires by mistake. One day last week, when an especially pessimistic report on his health was posted online, Apple shares were taken down nearly 4% in a straight line. (They recovered about half the loss by day's end.)

One reason for the market's anxiety -- Apple shares shed more than 56% in 2008 -- is that the company has been silent about its succession plan. It says it has one but won't disclose it.

Yet a corporate succession plan is like the Soviet Doomsday Machine in "Dr. Strangelove": It's useless unless you announce it to the world. The idea is to give investors, employees, customers and suppliers confidence that there won't be an extended period of turmoil while executives jockey with one another, switchblades at the ready, to fill the void.

Read the full column here.

-- Michael Hiltzik

Hiltzik is an L.A. Times business columnist.

Photo credit: David Paul Morris / Getty Images

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