Steve Jobs, 'interim' CEO -- now and forever?

Steve Jobs was named interim CEO of Apple Computer Inc. today, leaving just one more question to be answered: Will this interim appointment turn into a full-time position?

Steve Jobs was named interim CEO of Apple Computer Inc. today, leaving just one more question to be answered: Will this interim appointment turn into a full-time position?

Apple said it formalized Jobs' role at its new board's first regularly scheduled meeting last week and expects to name a new CEO by year's end.

In some ways the news was ho-hum. After all, there is no confusion as to who is running the Cupertino, Calif., computer maker. Ever since Jobs engineered the resignation of former CEO Gil Amelio, he has had his hands on the controls, bringing in a new board, canceling Apple's clone strategy and engineering a detente with Microsoft Corp.

But the action leaves open another intriguing possibility. By once again putting the CEO title next to his name, even if modified by 'interim,' some Apple observers are already convinced that Jobs is positioning himself -- or the company is positioning him -- for his inevitable return to the helm of the company he co-founded.

Dataquest analyst Kim Brown said Jobs' new title is more than symbolic. The move gives the market a sense that someone is actually running Apple now, a leadership void that had hurt the company. "Steve accepting this is pretty big, and there is more of a chance of him becoming (the permanent CEO) now," Brown said.

"Steve Jobs will be the next CEO of Apple," said Mac developer David Winer, a long-time company watcher, in an E-mail to subscribers today.

The stars are aligning themselves for that possibility. It's undisputed that most of the board would love to have Jobs back as full-time savior. In a recent issue of the New Yorker, board member Edgar Woolard said he would even consider hiring a nuts-and-bolts CEO to make the trains run on time, and using Jobs as master motivator and visionary.

And management recruiters not involved in the search say that Apple's CEO headhunter, John Thompson of Heidrick & Struggles, a Menlo Park, Calif., executive search firm, will have his hands full coming up with candidates willing to stand up to Jobs, who has shown he's willing to play hardball against executives he disagrees with.

And company sources say that although Jobs protests that the role would be too time-consuming on his family and his chores at Pixar, he nevertheless appears re-energized by the daunting task at hand.

Jobs had been serving as an adviser to Apple's board and executive management team for several months.

At last week's meeting, the board also met with its executive recruiter Thompson of Heidrick & Struggles, to review the status of the CEO search. It was the board's first face-to-face meeting since the new board members were named last month at Macworld.

Apple stunned the computer world and Wall Street with news of a $150 million investment by Microsoft in August. Apple also announced a major board shake-up and named four new board members -- Intuit Inc.'s CEO Bill Campbell, Oracle Corp. CEO Larry Ellison, former IBM Chief Financial Officer Jerome York and Jobs.

Apple recently paid $100 million to buy back its license for the Macintosh operating system and other assets of Power Computing Corp., a move that was seen as the death of its cloning policy which it began in 1994.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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