Steve Jobs back to work, say employees, timing fishy, says everyone

Has the attendance record of any executive been so closely watched as that of Apple's co-founder and CEO, Steve Jobs? When it was finally leaked to the Wall Street Journal late Friday that Jobs' illness was a liver transplant, which occurred about two months ago, many Apple (AAPL) fans breathed a sigh of relief; he wasn't fatally ill, at least, and he'd be back at work soon. But when? Apple wouldn't say, though when Steve first announced his "hormonal imbalance" in January, he said he'd return by the end of June.

Today, however, employees did say they saw him show up at the company's Cupertino, Calif. headquarters, prompting CNBC to ask all the questions that Apple PR wouldn't even listen to, let alone answer: "is [today's return] a one-hit-wonder, [will he] be here tomorrow, [is] his return to Apple full-time is actually coming earlier than the 'end of June' time-frame?"

Are these really the questions?

Investors and Apple fans elsewhere are asking much different questions, mostly "can Apple survive without Steve Jobs?" (the answer here is 'yes'); was this purposely leaked to coincide with the iPhone 3GS announcement to obscure the fallout? (this says "timing fishy" to which I can only reply, umm, no such thing as a coincidence in corporate communications); "don't you know that Steve Jobs is the economy's saviour?"; and of course, can investors sue? (BusinessWeek's Arik Hesseldahl says, probably not, since the stock's pretty much o.k.). Fake Steve Jobs has even come back to answer a question and say actually, he took just half of New York Times tech writer David Pogue's liver.

The real question is, of course, "what is Steve Jobs going to do now?" Analysts and Apple watchers say Chief Operating Officer Tim Cook will likely be given "an expanded role" and that Jobs will move to become Chairman, leaving Cook as CEO, or simply return as CEO, but in a limited capacity. Early scuttlebutt this morning had him staying out of the office for at least the next few weeks.

Having him back at work today, before his prediction, before even a liver transplant survivor writing for the Wall Street Journal thought likely, says to me that he won't be taking any back seat. Lest we forget, this is the man who came back from pancreatic cancer to run a company. His return today whispers loudly: I'm back.

And I love this visual, an attempt to analyze the timing of Apple's two big Friday news events: "You know that scene in the movies of Wall Street where frantic traders are waving their hands around and yelling 'Buy' and 'Sell' like crazy. That's what I envisioned happening on Monday morning when news of that release spread," Sam Diaz wrote. Instead, we had iPhone sales of double the expectations of around 500,000, and no frantic avalanche of traders yelling "sell, sell, SELL!" The stock dropped a few dollars, or 1.51%, to $137.37, and currently mostly unchanged in afterhours activity.

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