Apple Bruised by Renewed Jobs Jitters

The problem with Steve Jobs is that there is only one Steve Jobs. And the fact that he won't handle the Macworld keynote in January puts investors on edge.
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The

Apple

(AAPL) - Get Report

premium suddenly got a

Steve Jobs

exit discount.

Tuesday started like any other day, filled with speculation about Apple's refreshed product lines, such as potential new mini Macs and a possible

netbook launch

to extend the company's hot hand into a whole new growth segment in the tech market. But the mood changed abruptly at 4:30 p.m. EST when Apple issued a press release saying Jobs would not deliver the keynote address for the upcoming

Macworld Expo

.

The absence of Apple's marquee product pitchman, just three weeks ahead of the annual showcase event, quickly reignited anxieties about the health of the CEO. The news wiped as much as 7% off the stock price Wednesday and earned the Mac maker at least one downgrade.

For Apple fans and quick-triggered Wall Streeters, the big problem with Steve Jobs is that there is only one Steve Jobs.

"The unexpected announcement has underscored the greatest risk to Apple's long-term success -- its dependence on Jobs' health and its apparent lack of a succession plan," Oppenheimer analyst Yair Reiner wrote in a research note Wednesday, in which he cut Apple to hold from buy.

Jobs was treated for pancreatic cancer in 2004. Among the more common and challenging after-effects of the surgery is that it leaves a person with a somewhat compromised digestive system. In June, when Jobs took the stage to introduce the cheaper faster iPhone, his dramatically thinner appearance led to speculation about his well-being. Both Jobs and Apple regarded the issue as a private matter.

Like few other executives of big public tech shops, Jobs and Apple are considered to be intricately intertwined. And Apple's products, much like its stock, carry a higher price than its competitors, thanks largely to Jobs' uncanny ability to time product launches and chose designs that win with consumers.

In the 10 years since his return to head Apple, the hits kept coming. MacBooks are among the fastest-growing laptops and sell for about twice the price of comparable PC notebooks. The iPod dominates the portable media player market, and the popularity of the iPhone continues surging.

"Apple's success has depended on placing concentrated bets on a small handful of products, each filtered and shaped by Jobs' singular vision," Oppenheimer's Reiner writes.

Without Jobs, it is feared that Apple is at risk of being more like any other consumer electronics shop -- think

Dell

(DELL) - Get Report

,

Hewlett-Packard

(HPQ) - Get Report

and

Motorola

(MOT)

-- struggling for an edge in a cutthroat market.

It doesn't help that Apple's management bench lacks any charismatic heir apparent. The company's No. 2 executive is operations chief Tim Cook. While he's a peerless make-it-happen manager of Apple's supply chain and production schedule, Cook comes off as a very private, wonky workaholic married to a rigid biking regime, according to a recent profile in

Fortune

.

Under Cook, Apple would retain its nimble efficiency, but it would likely suffer a deficit of personality. And to be sure, Phil Schiller, the stand in for Jobs at Macworld and Apple's marketing chief, has gained stature as the company's gadget demo guy, but few have stepped forward to declare him a visionary.

"Given the continued lack of a succession plan," writes Reiner, "we no longer believe the stock merits a premium valuation."