Apple CEO Steve Jobs is taking a medical leave of absence until the end of June because his health problems are "more complex than originally thought," he said in an e-mail to company employees Wednesday.
His medical leave revives lingering doubts about the well-being of Jobs and that of Apple aapl, the American corporate institution he co-founded more than three decades ago. The iconic CEO, who helped redefine personal computing in the 1980s and digital entertainment during the past decade, is the driving creative force behind the iPhone, iPod and Macintosh computer.
But in recent months the 53-year-old Jobs, a pancreatic cancer survivor, has lost considerable weight. That has raised concerns not only about whether the cancer has returned, but about his ability to forcefully lead during an economic downturn — especially a company like Apple, which specializes in premium-price consumer products.
"Unfortunately, the curiosity over my personal health continues to be a distraction not only for me and my family, but everyone else at Apple as well," Jobs said in the e-mail. "As CEO, I plan to remain involved in major strategic decisions while I am out," he said. "Our board of directors fully supports this plan."
Apple's chief operating officer, Tim Cook, will take over Jobs' day-to-day responsibilities while he is on leave. Cook, who left Compaq Computer in 1998 to join Apple, filled in as interim Apple CEO when Jobs battled pancreatic cancer.
Jittery investors reacted immediately to Jobs' medical leave, sending Apple shares down 7%, to $79.30, in after-hours trading — its lowest in two years. A year ago, the stock was trading at just under $200.
Last week, Jobs had tried to soothe investors' concerns about his health. He said his noticeable weight loss in recent months was the result of a treatable hormone imbalance.
Although Jobs has not elaborated on his health, a hormone imbalance is a possible consequence of cancer treatment, some medical specialists say. Concern over Jobs' health has led some critics to question whether he and Apple are being fair to shareholders by not disclosing more information.
His medical leave, however long, raises questions about Apple's long-term viability.
"There's only one Steve Jobs," says Leander Kahney, author of Inside Steve's Brain, a book on Jobs' influence on Apple. "Apple will survive, but it may not burn so bright."
Jobs' health issues complicate what already was expected to be a less-than-stellar year for Apple and the consumer electronics industry. A withering global economic downturn has undercut consumer purchases, bruising tech companies and resulting in thousands of layoffs in Silicon Valley.
Some analysts fear that without a big product launch, such as last year's iPhone 3G, Apple will lack a hit product this year.
The company already had announced less-than-expected quarterly revenue of $7.9 billion in October, and crowds were thin at Macworld, the computer trade show in San Francisco that Jobs skipped this month for the first time in more than a decade. Apple says it will no longer participate in the show.
Apple without Jobs
Stepping into Jobs' formidable shadow is Cook, 48, a low-key manager who rarely raises his voice, according to co-workers. In many ways, they say, he is the management opposite of Jobs.