Analyst: Even without Jobs, Apple 'can clearly execute'

Apple CEO says 'more complex' health problems necessitate six-month medical leave.

Little more than a week after acknowledging a hormone deficiency , Apple CEO Steve Jobs on Wednesday said he is taking a medical leave of absence from his job because his condition is "more complex" than originally thought.

Apple stock reacted in after-hours trading by dropping more than 7% to just above US$79, its lowest level since November 2006. In regular trading earlier, the stock was off 2.7%, to $85.33.

Analysts were surprised by the move, if only because Jobs' Jan. 5 public announcement was followed so quickly by Wednesday's . "I certainly didn't expect the two to come so close together," said Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research.

"I was a little surprised," agreed Van Baker, an analyst with Gartner Inc. "But I don't think there's any subterfuge or deception here. Clearly [Jobs' health] is a moving target, and after interacting with his doctors, [he] decided that it was more complicated than he thought."

The impact of his absence may be minor, said both Gottheil and Baker -- if Jobs is out for only a few months. If he is unable to return on time, or resume his post as CEO, however, Apple's future is more difficult to predict.

"I don't think that there will be any changes visible in that period of time," said Gottheil, talking about the time between today and the end of June. "Apple can clearly execute, so if Jobs is able to do what he says and come back in June full bore, the effect will be zero."

"This is no big deal," said Baker, referring to a six-month absence by Jobs. "I don't think he was [running] day-to-day [operations] for quite some time anyway. But if he doesn't come back in June, then there will be some impact."

In the message to Apple employees that the company made public, Jobs provided no details about his ailment, a move that will be certain to raise additional questions about his health and the ramifications to Apple if he is unable to return.

"During the past week I have learned that my health-related issues are more complex than I originally thought," said Jobs. "In order to take myself out of the limelight and focus on my health, and to allow everyone at Apple to focus on delivering extraordinary products, I have decided to take a medical leave of absence until the end of June."

Jobs said that Tim Cook, the company's chief operating officer, will be in charge of day-to-day operations in his absence. Cook stepped in for Jobs in 2004 when the CEO took off the month of August to recuperate after cancer surgery. "As CEO, I plan to remain involved in major strategic decisions while I am out. Our board of directors fully supports this plan," Jobs said.

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Gregg Keizer

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