Apple Shareholders Prepare To Meet A Jobs-less Company

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For the first time since returning to Apple's C-suite back in 1997, Steve Jobs will not preside over the company's annual shareholder meeting which begins later this morning at 10am PST.

And for the first time, Apple shareholders will get their chance to query the company's executive staff about how Apple handled the news of Steve Jobs' health, his medical leave, his scheduled return in June, and what happens next at the company. Chief Operating Officer Tim Cook and Marketing Chief Phil Schiller will also likely be asked about what appeared to be sagging Mac sales in January, new, smaller iPhones and the ongoing strength of iPod.

Don't expect too many fireworks today, however, even though Apple botched the Jobs health news and its shares are well below $100. Apple shareholders, like Apple customers tend to be fervent supporters of the team in Cupertino, and those issues tend to be viewed as a result of outside forces, and not because of internal fundamentals. Last year, one of the most interesting exchanges came when an investor asked Jobs about a "say on pay" for CEOs, seizing on shareholder momentum elsewhere to rein in out of control executive salaries. Jobs' response: That he makes $1 a year; 50 cents for showing up and 50 cents more for performance. Bam!

But today will shine the spotlight brightly on Tim Cook. Schiller took the stage at Macworld and did an acceptable job. Today though comes with a shareholder question and answer period and that's a lot more tricky -- and unpredictable -- than a big event keynote. So Cook's performance will be watched very closely, and any new crumbs of information about Jobs will be parsed very carefully.

Still, my take, for what it's worth: the recent NPD data showing slowing Mac sales indicated to me that business is actually pretty good since many of us expected the number to be even weaker; iPod sales were surprisingly stronger than expected; and the company's iPhone juggernaut continues to seize market share. Apple's new version of Safari has Microsoft quaking, and Microsoft essentially upgraded Apple Monday by indicating that Apple grabbed a full point of PC marketshare recently.

These are the financial data points that matter. So much good news in the midst of a depression gripping the nation's economy. Apple is surely affected, but no where near to the extent others have been, even though its shares have been dragged down as if it were the same whipped technology dog as everyone else. This company is a star. Plain and simple. Not because of how it handles news, or its hubris, or its secretive nature, or its bullying attitude. No. It's a superstar because it executes. And well. Better than anyone else. Whether Steve Jobs is at the helm or not. This is a company that is the sum of its executive team, thousands of employees, its innovation, and a $30 billion cash war chest that essentially can let it withstand the kinds of head winds that blow lesser companies (and there are many of them) apart.

Shareholders today will likely fish for new data on Jobs. As well they should. They're allowed. Jobs is beloved and there is concern. They likely won't get anything new, but they'll try.

Apple seems to be functioning, operating well, even though Jobs isn't actively serving as CEO. That's important. His influence is still felt in Cupertino every day. Today we'll get the strongest indication yet as to what a Job-less Apple looks like, feels like. Since his departure, a major distraction has been alleviated, letting the company focus on those fundamentals. And that's a good thing. Apple gets to prove it has a deep bench of executive talent and leadership with today's meeting.

Who shows up from the Board will also be interesting. All eight? Just a handful? That will be telling. No major shareholder initiatives are on the ballot. This will be about Jobs. And Apple's future. And most importantly, at least today, it'll be about Apple's shareholders.

(UPDATE: We are now being told by Apple that we cannot blog live from the event - watch for updates)

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Questions? Comments?