Congratulations, Mr. Jobs. You've done it again. You managed to dazzle the press and the growing cult of Apple ( AAPL) by giving them exactly what they were expecting. For weeks, even months, people have been talking about the release of an iPhone or an enhanced product to play digital videos in widescreen format. Keypads were worn out with predictions of which one would be unveiled. 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 has boldly moved forward to plant one foot in the growing, if overcrowded, market for mobile devices, and the other in the still-developing field of downloaded video content. Wall Street stood and applauded, driving up Apple's stock 8% Tuesday while those 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 at the helm of a company that sits on top of the technology world. What could possibly go wrong now? Well, actually, the fact of the matter is that there is one glaring vulnerability 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 other recent and
closely watched announcement from Apple: the Securities and Exchange Commission filing that the company is recording $84 million in noncash expenses to account for backdated stock options. It's perhaps the unfair nature of scandals that most people will remember less that you didn't get a cent from backdated options than that your board once granted you up to 15 million options, or that you were "aware or recommended the selection of some favorable grant dates." Then there's that options-granting meeting that never happened -- the kind of David Brent moment that people remember. In a way, it's too bad the internal probe wasn't a little harder on you. Governance experts are suggesting you got off too easily, a perception that could dog Apple for months. And disclosing the findings during a holiday week -- when many people were on vacation -- felt like an attempt to bury 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: "Should Steve 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 -- became the poster child for questionable IPO share allotments, you, Mr. Jobs -- rightly or wrongly -- could well become the poster child for options backdating.
Sure, the SEC is looking at more than 100 companies for backdating options, but how many executives could most consumers name as being implicated? Probably only one: Steve Jobs. That sums up the risk of standing on the top of the world. You're visible to everyone -- maybe too visible. A lot of folks, especially the same press 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 big fish. But the key issue is how Apple appears to its customers. Scandals have a way of eating into a corporate brand like termites devour a house: The damage is hard to notice and easy to ignore; then one day the structure 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's savior. Hurd had a tangential but still tangible role in the front-page spying scandal that roiled the company. He appeared to have some idea of what was happening and in at least one instance gave his explicit blessing. Investors went into denial about the implications of it all. They knew H-P couldn't afford to lose Hurd, that the company was lost without him. The stock even rose. But the reaction of many of the company's customers was subtly but significantly different: They wondered, if he allowed the spying to happen, what else has he done that we don't know about? The brand was tainted.
H-P's share of the storage market had been increasing in recent quarters. 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 notebook sales were well below the 29% year-on-year growth rate. That meant smaller rivals like Acer and Toshiba were starting to nip at H-P's heels as more consumers turned to them. That's only one quarter's data -- the quarter of the scandal's unfolding -- but it suggests customers might be looking 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 a big risk in betting on that. The best thing you can do for Apple now is put the options-backdating issue behind it as quickly as possible. It may not be easy, Mr. Jobs, but that's the kind of tricky tasks they pay CEOs for.