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Why Apple can't send Jobs packing

CNET's Charles Cooper says the appearance of impropriety won't be enough for the board to force out the CEO.

It's been a memorable month for Apple.

• Wall Street creamed the company's shares after forward earnings guidance left many investors unimpressed.

• Cisco Systems sued after Apple used the iPhone trademark without receiving prior permission.

• Apple assessed a silly surcharge on some notebook customers that only raised more questions than it answered.

• Norway's consumer watchdog declared iTunes illegal because Apple prevents users from playing downloaded songs on other companies' devices.

At any other tech outfit, this would be cause for prolonged nail biting. But I wouldn't get too concerned at the headlines. After all, this is Apple, the longest-running soap opera this side of Days of Our Lives. The company has weathered worse--a lot worse--and has still emerged in fine fettle.

Apple will make up with Cisco, which has little interest in picking a fight over a trademark it couldn't care much about. Maniac day traders who thought Apple shares would soar straight to 120 with nary a timeout will calm down. Besides, the big institutions still remain bullish on Apple's prospects.

What happens when Apple's survival instinct butts heads with the imperatives of corporate governance?

Regarding the surcharge nonsense, even though Apple's corporate public-relations department further botched the situation with a painfully confusing explanation, nobody's going to remember the episode six months hence. As for Norway, which we all love, let's get real: the Norwegians would have far more influence if they declared a smoked-salmon embargo. No nova lox for the morning bagel run? Now that is the sort of prospect that would bring nations to their knees.

Apple's biggest headache concerns the questions surrounding what Steve Jobs did or did not know about . An internal review discovered irregularities in Apple stock option grants made between 1997 and 2001, including a grant to Jobs. The company is now taking an $84 million charge for misdating more than 6,400 options.

At the same time, a that outlined the terms of Jobs' grant at a meeting that never took place.

Apple's board--whose roster includes former U.S. Vice President Al Gore--cleared Jobs of wrongdoing. Press reports say government investigators subsequently interviewed Jobs. It's safe to assume that the conversation extended far beyond his personal views about the future for digital music.

There's no way that anyone outside of the upper corporate echelons of the company knows whether we're talking about a passing tempest or the opening chapter of Apple's version of Watergate.

But ever since this story first came to light last year, Apple and its Wall Street apologists have circled the wagons. They badly want this story to disappear, with understandable reason: other CEOs have been forced to walk the plank simply for the appearance of impropriety. At last count, more than 160 companies (including publisher CNET Networks) were being investigated because of their option-granting policies. If Jobs got forced out, Apple would lose its leader, savior and prophet in one swoop.

Who's next in line? Chief Operating Officer Tim Cook? Marketing boss Phil Schiller? Um, I don't think so. A Jobs resignation would lead to an immediate 25 percent drop in the stock--and that would just be the start of a long time of troubles. Simply put, Apple's future as a company is more tightly bound up with the fortunes of its co-founder than any other company in the computer industry. You take Steve Nash off of the Phoenix Suns, and that squad becomes a .500 basketball team. You remove Steve Jobs from Apple, and you're left with just another company.

So it's not hard to speculate what happens when Apple's survival instinct butts heads with the imperatives of corporate governance. The U.K.'s Financial Times recently ran a column titled "Apple's ethics" (registration required), asking whether Jobs should have been fired by the board for his involvement.

But as long as investigators can't pin Jobs with any criminal activity, Apple won't climb on the horns of that dilemma. Too much is riding on a happy outcome for the board to send its Teflon CEO packing.