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Has Jobs seized the day?

The dust hasn't even settled after Gil Amelio's departure, and already there's speculation that Steve Jobs is consummating his return.

The dust hasn't even settled after Gil Amelio's unceremonious departure, and already there's speculation that Steve Jobs is consummating his return to the company he cofounded.

Only this time, Jobs won't likely be occupying the chief executive's suite at the troubled company, which is now reeling from falling sales, licensing fights, and staggering losses. Instead, Apple has embarked on an outside search for a new CEO under Jobs's watchful eye.

"I believe that from the beginning Jobs has planned this day," one former Apple executive said in an interview with CNET's NEWS.COM. "Jobs put his key people in place."

But finding someone willing to take the helm of Apple in its current state won't be easy, either from within or beyond.

One inevitable rumor has it that Oracle chief executive Larry Ellison may have reignited plans to acquire Apple to develop his network computers. In the meantime, Fred Anderson, Apple chief financial officer and one of the more respected figures in the rapidly disintegrating executive team, will act as interim CEO.

Amelio's downfall comes 12 years after Jobs was himself cut loose from the company he lovingly built from a Los Altos, California garage to a multimillion-dollar empire. Swearing vengeance against CEO John Sculley, whom he had hand-picked, Jobs started Next Software.

Earlier this year, Jobs exacted some measure of that revenge when Apple purchased Next for a cool $430 million--and hired Jobs as a special consultant.

From the start of Jobs's new tenure at Apple, it was obvious his autocratic management style and obsession with technological design elitism was clashing with the old-fashioned, bottom-line sensibilities of Amelio and Hancock.

"Jobs is the kind of guy who was obsessed by detail and design but couldn't deal with day-to-day operations," one Apple insider said. "He had a circuit board [on the original Macintosh] redesigned not because he didn't like the way it worked--he didn't like the way it looked!"

When Jobs brought in his own executives from Next, it was rumored that Hancock would quit because control of the operating system was effectively taken out of her hands. Today she did.

"I had stayed to help Gil," Hancock wrote in an email to CNET's NEWS.COM today. "Since he is now leaving, that gave me another reason to leave."

Several other members of Apple's top brass have left since the beginning of the year, including Marco Landi, Fred Forsyth, and George Scalise, who controlled sales, operations, and administration, respectively, for Apple in 1996. All three reported directly to Amelio.

Taking their places are a bevy of relative newcomers. Guerrino De Luca, the executive vice president of marketing, and Dave Manovich, executive vice president of worldwide sales, have the most experience at Apple.

Still, both assumed their positions only in the past few months. The majority of the technological team Apple has in place now came from its acquisition of Next in December.

Outside, however, Apple's executive search committee faces an inevitable question: Who would have the hubris to take the job in which so many others have failed?

Enter Mr. Ellison.

"Ellison, longtime friend and associate of Jobs, may be the savior," said Silicon Valley-based Zona Research in a report today. "Ellison has no ability to manufacture or distribute desktop or server hardware products. Apple has the channels and infrastructure, but now seems to lack the direction and mission. The match may be irresistible."

At today's briefing, Apple executives did not rule out the possibility of developing network computers, but they emphasized that no decision has been made.

But if Ellison is even considering the idea, he's not discussing it publicly. The often-indiscreet Ellison issued a highly uncharacterisitic "no comment" to reporters today--inspiring even more rumors that he must be up to something behind the scenes.

Should Apple give up on its outside search for a new leader, there's always the rank and file. Acting CEO Anderson is well-respected on Wall Street and is the only executive to receive consistently high marks for his performance during Amelio's tenure.

No matter what happens, it's clear that prodigal son Jobs is once again a force to be reckoned with.

Internet News Editor Jeff Pelline contributed to this report.

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