THE world's largest technology company was plunged into uncertainty yesterday as the Apple boss Steve Jobs took medical leave of absence, signalling a significant decline in his health.
The move raises serious questions about the leadership of the company, which under Mr Jobs's stewardship has invented products that have transformed the way millions of people listen to music, communicate by mobile phone and use personal computers.
Mr Jobs, who has survived pancreatic cancer, took similar leave nearly two years ago, during which he had a liver transplant.
Although he said yesterday that he would continue as chief executive and be involved in all key decisions at the company, he has handed over day-to-day operations to Tim Cook, the chief operating officer, described by some analysts as the "heir apparent" at Apple.
Mr Jobs made the announcement on a day that shares were not trading in the US - Martin Luther King Day, a public holiday. Apple is due to publish its latest quarterly figures today, which are expected to show strong returns for the company after the worldwide success of the iPad. But shares in Apple were down 7.5pc in Frankfurt yesterday.
In January 2009, Mr Jobs stepped down complaining of a "hormone imbalance" that had caused him to lose weight rapidly. During that absence, he secretly flew to Tennessee to receive a liver transplant, returning to work six months later. He has appeared in public a number of times in the past year, notably at the launch of the iPad and a new line of MacBook Air laptops.
During those presentations Mr Jobs appeared energetic, revealing his new products with the typical showmanship that Apple's customers have come to expect. But onlookers said that he appeared gaunt and thin. Those who have seen him in recent weeks have reported that he has looked frail.
Mr Jobs is said to be suffering from immune system problems that typically affect people who have undergone a liver transplant. Reports suggest that Mr Jobs "slowed his activities" in recent weeks, only coming into the office two days a week and avoiding the staff canteen.
In a note to employees yesterday, Mr Jobs wrote: "At my request, the board of directors has granted me a medical leave of absence so I can focus on my health. I will continue as CEO and be involved in major strategic decisions for the company.
"I love Apple so much and hope to be back as soon as I can. In the meantime, my family and I would deeply appreciate respect for our privacy."
Mr Jobs, who co-founded Apple in 1976, was ousted in a boardroom coup but returned in 1997 and sparked a rich creative streak, in which many iconic and best-selling products were released, such as the iMac personal computer, the iPod digital music player, the iPhone and the iPad.
It is not known how Mr Jobs's absence will affect the release of new products, with the latest version of the iPad - more than 7.5 million sales worldwide - expected to be unveiled by April and a new iPhone being prepared for the summer.
In May last year the company had a market capitalisation of $241bn, surpassing Microsoft as the world's largest technology company.
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