Congratulations, Mr. Jobs. You've done it again. You managed to dazzle the press and the growing cult of Apple ( AAPL) by givingthem exactly what they were expecting. For weeks, even months, people have been talking about the releaseof an iPhone or an enhanced product to play digital videos in widescreenformat. Keypads were worn out with predictions of which one would beunveiled. And lo, there came the revelation
that Apple would offer both to the masses, and the masses were ecstatic. After dominating the market for digital-music players, Apple hasboldly moved forward to plant one foot in the growing, if overcrowded,market for mobile devices, and the other in the still-developing fieldof downloaded video content. Wall Street stood and applauded, driving up Apple's stock 8% Tuesday whilethose of your new rivals Palm ( PALM) and Research In Motion ( RIMM) were down 6% and 8%, respectively. The shares were recently up another 4% on Wednesday, falling slightly off a new all-time high earlier in the session. It's pretty hard to argue against the view that you, Mr. Jobs, are standing atthe helm of a company that sits on top of the technologyworld. What could possibly go wrong now? Well, actually, the fact of the matter is that there is one glaringvulnerability threatening to tarnish the shiny Apple brand, and that is... well, um ... the thing is, Mr. Jobs, it's you.
The rapture over the iPhone announcement is eclipsing the otherrecent and
closely watched announcement from Apple: the Securities and Exchange Commission filing that the company is recording $84 million in noncashexpenses to account for backdated stock options. It's perhaps the unfair nature of scandals that most people willremember less that you didn't get a cent from backdated options thanthat your board once granted you up to 15 million options, or that youwere "aware or recommended the selection of some favorable grant dates." Then there's that options-granting meeting that never happened -- thekind of David Brent moment that people remember. In a way, it's too bad the internal probe wasn't a little harder onyou. Governance experts are suggesting you got off too easily, aperception that could dog Apple for months. And disclosing the findings during aholiday week -- when many people were on vacation -- felt like an attempt tobury bad news. Even amid the iPhone splash, however, some in the press are circling. The Wall Street Journal is already asking the question on Wednesday: "ShouldSteve Jobs Go to Jail?" The accompanying editorial argues "no, but that provocative headline may be a taste of what's to follow. In the same way that Frank Quattrone -- rightly or wrongly -- becamethe poster child for questionable IPO share allotments, you, Mr. Jobs -- rightly orwrongly -- could well become the poster child for options backdating.
Sure, the SEC is looking at more than 100 companies for backdatingoptions, but how many executives could most consumers name as beingimplicated? Probably only one: Steve Jobs. That sums up the risk of standing on the top of the world. You'revisible to everyone -- maybe too visible. A lot of folks, especially the samepress that is adoring you today, like to try to take down those on top. And regulators know that big careers are made by bringing in bigfish. But the key issue is how Apple appears to its customers. Scandalshave a way of eating into a corporate brand like termites devour ahouse: The damage is hard to notice and easy to ignore; then one day thestructure is found to be much weaker. Look at what has happened to Mark Hurd, the CEO of Hewlett-Packard ( HPQ) who was, like you, seen as his company'ssavior. Hurd had a tangential but still tangible role in the front-pagespying scandal that roiled the company. He appeared to have some idea ofwhat was happening and in at least one instance gave his explicit blessing. Investors went into denial about the implications of it all. Theyknew H-P couldn't afford to lose Hurd, that the company was lost withouthim. The stock even rose. But the reaction of many of the company'scustomers was subtly but significantly different: They wondered, if heallowed the spying to happen, what else has he done that we don't knowabout? The brand was tainted.
H-P's share of the storage market had been increasing in recentquarters. But its share of the disk-storage system market fell to 17.6%in the third quarter from 19% a year before, while market shares of EMC ( EMC) and IBM ( IBM) grew. And research firm DisplaySearch said H-P's third-quarter notebooksales were well below the 29% year-on-year growth rate. That meantsmaller rivals like Acer and Toshiba were starting to nip at H-P's heelsas more consumers turned to them. That's only one quarter's data -- thequarter of the scandal's unfolding -- but it suggests customers might belooking elsewhere, curdling H-P's streak of growing market share. Of course, if you're lucky, it will all blow past you. But there's abig risk in betting on that. The best thing you can do for Apple now isput the options-backdating issue behind it as quickly as possible. Itmay not be easy, Mr. Jobs, but that's the kind of tricky tasks they payCEOs for.