Apple's Steve Jobs Returns, in Time for New iPhone?

Steve Jobs, master of the iPhone, iPod, iTunes, MacBook and all other things Apple, is apparently on the mend after a mysterious illness, sources said, and word of his recovery comes at the same time as the expected announcement of a new, lower-priced iPhone.

Jobs, 54, has been on medical leave from his post as Apple's chief executive since the beginning of the year, forced by what was only described as a nutritional problem related to a hormone imbalance.

Industry insiders, who asked not to be quoted by name, said the illness may have been quite serious, depriving his body of the ability to digest protein properly. But, they said, he received the necessary help to overcome it.

Word of Jobs' improvement coincides with Apple's annual software developers' conference (the Worldwide Developers Conference, or WWDC) this week in San Francisco, and with word that Apple is ready to introduce a third-generation iPhone. Apple-watchers say the new phone is likely to be able to record and edit video, and could be unveiled at the conference.

The new phone could be priced at $149 or even $99, analysts said. The base model iPhone 3G sells for $199 plus tax, fees and a two-year contract with AT&T.

Rumors have been flying as fast as tweets on Twitter. New iPhones could have a faster processor, or longer battery life, or more memory, or a black case to replace the shiny but fingerprint-prone current version. Or the rumors could be just rumors.

iPhone Video?

"We've confirmed with a supplier in Taiwan that they're producing a new iPhone, probably to go on sale in mid-July," said Gene Munster, an analyst with Piper Jaffray who tracks Apple, the iPhone and Jobs' health.

Munster said he expects the price to be $149, while Kathryn Huberty of Morgan Stanley writes that a $99 model, which she thinks could be announced today, might double iPhone sales.

As for an on-the-record statement from the company, either about the phone or the boss, "We look forward to Steve returning to Apple at the end of June," Apple spokesman Steve Dowling said, repeating a statement the company has used before. "Beyond that, we don't comment on rumors and speculation."

Tim Bajarin of Creative Strategies, Inc., a Silicon Valley analyst, said, "I don't think he'll be at the conference. When they refer you back to the previous statement about when he'll come back, that's usually code for, 'That's exactly when he'll come back.'"

Steve Jobs' Comeback Trail

Jobs, described as "a strict vegetarian, very much into Eastern mysticism," is said by two sources to have turned to alternative medicine to treat his health problems. "He believes anything can be treated naturally," one of the sources said, asking not to be named.

There was a solution that came from an extract made with pork; the source said Jobs finally decided to use it.

Jobs' Health and Apple's Health

Jobs has been private about medical matters, including a case of pancreatic cancer that was successfully treated with surgery in 2004. Members of Apple's board of directors, sources said, persuaded him that his health was "a fiduciary issue," interwoven with the health of the company.

He was listed last year as 189th on the Forbes list of the world's billionaires, with a net worth of about $5.7 billion. After selling Pixar animation studios to The Walt Disney Company in 2006, he became a Disney board member and the company's largest shareholder. Disney is the parent company of ABCNews.com.

Analysts said Apple has done fine in Jobs' absence, partly because he has been available for big decisions, partly because he has delegated day-to-day decisions for about five years.

Apple Inc., stock, which dropped to $78.20 a share in January after he announced he was going on leave, has since climbed to above $140 a share.

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