Apple execs reassure shareholders at annual meeting

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Apple executives painted a rosy picture of the company’s future at its annual shareholders’ meeting Wednesday—an event notable largely for the absence of Steve Jobs, who missed the meeting for the first time since returning to Apple as CEO more than a decade ago.

With Jobs currently on medical leave until the end of June, the health of Apple’s CEO was very much on the minds of attendees at the shareholders’ meeting. In fact, it was the subject of the first thing asked when company executives opened the floor to shareholder questions. A shareholder asked whether Apple’s board of directors had kept investors in the dark about the status of Jobs’ health and inquired about a succession plan. Board member Arthur Levinson, who is also chairman and CEO of biotech firm Genentech, replied that the board disclaims information that it deems important and proper, and that it talks regularly about a succession plan.

Otherwise, the meeting served largely to have executives assure shareholders that the company was on the right track. Filling in for Jobs—and donning a Jobs-like pair of blue jeans and black (though collared, not turtleneck) shirt—chief operating officer Tim Cook cited strong Mac, iPod, and iPhone sales in the last year and hailed the App Store as “absolutely the envy of the industry.” He also reassured shareholders that he was “very confident of our product pipeline.”

The business portion of the meeting was uneventful with shareholders re-electing Apple’s eight-member board of directors, though an audience member spoke out against board member Al Gore, seated in the front row, because of a fundraising controversy involving the former U.S. vice president during the 1996 presidential election. (In fact, with shareholder proposals involving political spending, health care reform, and the environment on the agenda, Gore’s name came up almost as often as Jobs’ during the hour-and-15-minute meeting.)

As for the shareholder proposals, preliminary results indicated that all four were voted down Wednesday, as Apple’s board of directors had recommended. One proposal had asked for Apple to annually disclose political contributions while another asked for a similar report on sustainability. A third proposal called on Apple to enact health care reform using principles recommended by the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine. The final proposal would have let shareholders approve compensation of Apple’s top executives.

Apple’s shareholder meeting is notable mainly for giving attendees the chance to question company officials. Often, those questions can touch on some very specific issues, and Wednesday’s Q-and-A session was no exception.

In addition to the question about Jobs’ health, Cook and chief financial officer Peter Oppenheimer also fielded a query about Apple’s decision to pull out of Macworld Expo, with the questioner asking Apple to reconsider the move. “We have very fond memories” of Macworld Expo, Cook replied, but the COO echoed the tone of Apple’s earlier statement that with more than 250 retail store around the world, Apple has the equivalent of “many, many Macworlds each week.” Cook added that Apple can call press conferences when it wants to get its message out, and said the decision had “nothing to do with Apple not liking Macworld [Expo].”

Several people spoke about the need for Apple to improve its commitment to environmental issues, and another shareholder bemoaned the fact that Apple doesn’t offer a pro-level Web design application—senior vice president of worldwide product marketing Phil Schiller tackled that second issue, noting that Apple doesn’t want to sell products for every niche the marketplace. “For the foreseeable future, [no pro Web design software is] the case,” Schiller said.

There was also a taste of the loyalty that Apple fans are known for. One shareholder thanked Apple for its great products, wished Steve Jobs well, and then asked the audience to “stand and sing happy birthday to Steve,” who turned 54 on Tuesday. (Although not everyone stood, the crowd did sing to Jobs, and Cook promised he’d pass along the message).

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