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Wednesday, February 25, 2009, 02:00 pm PT (05:00 pm ET)

Apple shareholder meeting dominated by politics

Apple's annual shareholder meeting was dominated, as usual, by groups using the event as a soapbox for furthering their political agenda. Apple COO Tim Cook only answered a couple real questions from individuals, and the crowd sang out happy birthday to Steve Jobs, who was away on medical leave.

The hour long meeting was consumed by four largely symbolic shareholder proposals that failed to pass in a preliminary tally of votes, each of which was rallied against by Shelton Ehrlich, a staunch conservative who grew increasingly upset as he voiced his opinions on various measures.

Ehrlich's comments began during the discussion on reelecting the board of directors, where he complained about criminal conspiracies related to Al Gore. He again commented on the first shareholder proposal, which was advanced by the Teamsters union seeking a more complete report on all any expenses related to political contributions or memberships of trade organizations. Ehrlich said it was hypocritical for the Teamsers to demand transparent funding, but then tied together another conspiracy involving President Obama before giving up the microphone.
Ehrlich also commented on a second proposal forwarded by the AFL-CIO, which asked the company to adopt health care reform policies. Ehrlich managed to start what became an ongoing joke by fuming that the measure was being pushed by “socialists here” before swearing and then excusing himself to get a drink.

A third proposal asked the company to report more extensively on its efforts related to climate change, and a fourth requested the company to initiate a shareholder advisory vote on executive compensation. The presenter also grilled the board, demanding to know the company's succession plans related to Jobs. He also complained that members of the board had been protected by Jobs from such direct interrogation at earlier meetings by Jobs.

Apple board member Arthur Levinson, who is also the CEO of Genentech, answered by saying, “we believe we have met all disclosure obligations,” and commented that since he joined the board nearly a decade ago, there have been regular discussions about the company's succession plans, and that the matter is one of the primary duties of boards to attend to in general. Members of the tech media have frequently reported that Apple has no succession plan, as if the company was completely unaware of what might happen if Jobs became unable to return to his regular duties after his medical leave.

Levinson also noted that Jobs “is deeply involved in all strategic matters and has delegated day to day authority to Tim Cook and his team. That’s where it stands.” After the measure to reelect members of the board passed and all four shareholder proposals failed, the floor was opened up to general comments prefaced by comments from the COO.

The part of Steve Jobs will be played by Cook

Cook presented a terse overview of the company's recent successes, noting that four years ago the company's revenues were at 8 billion, but last year multiplied four fold to reach 32 billion. Net income increased to 4.8 billion, 18 times the number from four years prior.

Mac sales had reached 9.7 million last year, Cook noted, a 38% increase and two to three times the industry pace, while iPod sales had hit 55 million, gaining share in markets around the world. The iPhone also exceeded the ten million target set for calendar 2008, reaching sales of 13.7 million.

Cook attributed the company's success to “employees [who] worked their hearts out.” He also noted that Apple climbed to the top of the music reseller business, asking “do you know who number two is? Wal-Mart! Can you believe that Apple sold more of something than Wal-Mart?”

The success of the iPhone App Store has become the “envy of the industry,” Cook said, while the company's brick and mortar retail efforts were resulting in one new store per week, and the company's first new outlets in Australia, China, Switzerland, and Germany this year. Cook also noted that Apple was the top notebook provider to education, in both K-12 and higher ed.

Scant opportunity for shareholder questions

Cook then called for public comments, saying he was happy to live in a country with freedom of speech and invited “conservatives, socialists, and liberals” to approach the microphones. The general questions period was again dominated by the presenters of the failed shareholder proposals, but only after an individual thanked the company for its efforts to build great products and suggested that, with Steve Jobs likely listening, the group might want to sing him a happy birthday. Jobs' turned 54 yesterday. Everyone stood up and sang.

Another individual asked why Apple had canceled plans to attend Macworld, suggesting the company at least set up a small booth next year. Cook responded that everyone at Apple has “fond memories of Macworld,” but recounted the reality that Apple's investment in retail has resulted in visitor numbers on a weekly basis equivalent to “many Macworlds,” and that the company can now call press conferences right when the company is ready for them and gain the press coverage that once required a trade show event.

A Mac user asked why the company only targets the needs of entry-level consumers with iLife rather than relying on third parties to provide midrange and professional apps such as web tools. Cook deferred the question to Phil Schiller, who affably thanked her for being a customer and noted that the company does make Pro Apps for certain markets. Schiller also noted that the market for web creation tools was changing, and that it considers Adobe a strong partner and has no plans to build a professional web page tool of its own.

The rest of the commenters, most of whom identified themselves as 'not being socialist,“ were largely a rehashing of the same issues from the presenters of the failed shareholder proposals. Cook promptly cut off questions from remaining individuals after the meeting reached its hour length.

The company had moved members of the press into a secondary overflow auditorium to prevent the meeting from turning into a press conference, but several shareholders in attendance expressed dissatisfaction with the company for only seeing fit to grant shareholders a very short few minutes each year to comment and query executives, particularly after spending so much time granting a podium to special interests pushing agendas that have regularly been rejected by the majority of the company's shareholders.