It normally wouldn't be a surprise to hear that Apple's board of directors has been privately meeting to discuss who'll take over as CEO after Steve Jobs -- succession planning is a normal board-level responsibility and Jobs is currently on medical leave -- but the Wall Street Journal is reporting today that a subset of Apple's board members has been meeting in private to talk about the future, perhaps without Jobs' blessing. According to the WSJ, Apple's independent directors have met privately to discuss management succession at every board meeting for the past 12 years, but the recent talks are considered to be "more than the routine," and there have even been informal discussions with recruiting firms and "at least one head of a high-profile technology company" in the past few months. No decisions have been made, however, and the WSJ characterizes the entire thing as an "informal exploration of the company's options."

Here's what's wild: Apple declined to officially comment on the story, but Jobs himself emailed the WSJ to say he thinks it's "hogwash." That's an interesting conflict between Jobs and his board: from all accounts Jobs is still actively involved in Apple's operations while on his medical leave and it's almost certain that he'll handpick his successor when the time comes, so it's very odd that he's saying one thing while sources near the board are telling the WSJ another. What's more, Apple's Q3 earnings are scheduled to be announced in just under an hour, and this story is sure to dampen what's expected to be a blockbuster quarter for the company -- it's definitely curious multiple sources decided to speak to the WSJ about this issue in such a contentious manner now, especially since management succession planning is such a standard issue for corporate boards to discuss. (A CEO and board recruiter I know told me this process typically takes years and is generally a regular part of director-level meetings.) We'll see if any analysts have the courage to ask about this story -- and Apple's actual succession plan --  on the financial call at 5PM ET. Stay tuned.