In an era in which accolades often seem devalued by overuse, Steve Jobs was that rare figure who really did leave an imprint as enormous as his outsized reputation. As much as anyone who lived during his years, he altered and updated the nature of many aspects of modern reality.
He was an icon in the technology world, an inspiration to countless startups, and an obsession for legions of competitors who grew used to being overtaken time and again by the next consumer electronics revolution unleashed by his company, Apple.
He goes down as one of the most prolific innovators in the history of business, one man at the center of myriad products whose release and emphatic consumer embrace serve as a handy way to divide the chapters of recent history -– from personal computer to iPod to iPhone to iPad.
Jobs died Wednesday at the age of 56, Apple announced, triggering a global outpouring of commentary about a life that was extraordinary by any measure. Though he shared little publicly about his personal life, his aura remains a force in the lives of millions of people around the world through the products that he pioneered and meticulously designed, earning a reputation as a sometimes intimidating taskmaster, yet also a source of fierce inspiration among the people he led.
His iDevices -- an inimitable blend of elegance, simplicity and technology -- nearly always managed to seem years ahead of their time. They not only revolutionized the way users connected with and consumed entertainment, art, and information, but also spawned new industries, from digitally downloaded music and television shows, to web versions of magazines and mobile apps. His signature blend of persnickety attention to technology and design all at once helps explain how Jobs managed to be likened variously to Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, while also being celebrated as an artist.
His career did not unfold neatly. Jobs helped launch Apple in 1976, resigned from the company in 1985, and returned twelve years later to resuscitate the PC-maker from the brink of bankruptcy.
Fourteen years later, Jobs had grown Apple into the world’s most valuable technology company through his scrupulous attention to detail and his ability to, in his own words, marry technology with liberal arts and humanities to “make our hearts sing.”
Though Jobs' family said only that he "died peacefully today surrounded by his family," the former Apple CEO reportedly died of complications from pancreatic cancer, with which he was diagnosed in 2004 and continued to battle during his tenure as chief executive of Apple. Jobs remained CEO up until six weeks before his death.
"Apple has lost a visionary and creative genius, and the world has lost an amazing human being," the company said in a statement.
Few industrialists have ever commanded such a large and worshipful following. In the hours following the news of Jobs’ death, world leaders and titans of industry added tributes to a global chorus of praise.
President Barack Obama said Jobs was "among the greatest of American innovators -- brave enough to think differently, bold enough to believe he could change the world, and talented enough to do it. "
"The world has lost a visionary. And there may be no greater tribute to Steve’s success than the fact that much of the world learned of his passing on a device he invented," Obama declared in a statement. "Thanks for showing that what you build can change the world," Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote on Facebook.
"The world rarely sees someone who has had the profound impact Steve has had, the effects of which will be felt for many generations to come," said Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.
Around the web, Apple users shared their memories of Jobs and products he pioneered, recounting their first iMacs, marriage proposals issued via iPods, and ditching class to watch Jobs' keynotes. Fans left flowers, candles and signs reading "I love Steve" outside Apple stores in cities across the country.
Jobs' story has been told many times by many tellers, and retains hallmarks of a classic mystical journey: the unusual circumstances of his birth, his days of monastic contemplation, a startling rise to power and acclaim followed by a wrenching departure from the fold, setting up the triumphant return, and an untimely death.
Born in San Francisco in 1955, he was adopted by Paul and Clara Jobs, and grew up in the California milieu that Joan Didion would liken to Bethlehem. He grew his hair long, bummed meals from a Hare Krishna temple, and took Timothy Leary's advice literally, dropping out of Reed College, a liberal arts school in Portland, Ore., after only a semester. (Years later, he would say he quit school to avoid draining his parents’ savings.) He journeyed to India in search of nirvana, hallucinated, and came back a bald-headed Buddhist.
The Buddha preached a message of simplicity, and Jobs carried that message to the kingdom of the geek. "He just wanted to get that technical stuff out of the way," said Steve Wozniak, who co-founded Apple with Jobs. "Look at the Macintosh. All of a sudden, instead of typing a command, you just reach up with your pointer and drag it somewhere. You didn't have to learn a lot of stuff. You didn't have to have a big manual. He stuck to that philosophy in every product."
It was a monk's philosophy, maybe, but it earned him the riches of a Midas. The earliest Apple models were blockbusters. Yet the Macintosh, while profitable, didn't quite perform up to expectations. Soon Jobs was pushed out the door.
"They ran him out," said Jeff Gamet, managing editor of The Mac Observer. "Jobs flew a pirate flag over the Mac development building. He had this kind of renegade idea about how the company needed to run and what they needed to be doing with the hardware, and the executives and board of directors was looking at the company as, well, 'We have shareholders and obligations to the shareholder and we have to look at the profit margins all the time.' They didn't think they should be spending as much money as they were."
Wozniak remembered his friend's departure slightly differently: "I felt it was a little disloyal to Apple,” he said. "He still had the freedom to stay at Apple and work on products. But he wanted to do other things. He left because he felt that in his heart he was meant to build great computers."
Jobs attempted to do that by starting a new company, NeXT, in 1985. And although it may be the rare MacBook user who can recall the NeXT machines in any detail, that company proved to be the staging ground for many of Apple's later successes. It was at NeXT that Jobs developed the operating system that would evolve into Apple's OS X.
According to Gamet, the accessibility and elegance of the system held great appeal for Apple, which had floundered in Jobs' absence.
"I think it's safe to say that Apple's position at the time was dire," Gamet said. "They were losing money, they had a very convoluted product line-up, and they were charging too much for the Macs that they were selling at the time, and they were also suffering from public image problems.
"Every week a new rumor was coming out about who was going to buy Apple. Sometimes it was Disney, sometimes it was an oil company, and of course the week I heard the rumor that Dunkin' Donuts was going to buy Apple -- which of course was a totally bogus rumor, but people really believed it -- I thought, yeah, this company's really in trouble."
Apple bought NeXT in 1997, Jobs took a consultant job with his old company and by the dawn of the next millennium, he was the permanent CEO. And it was at this point that the company embarked on the run of technological and commercial breakthroughs that yielded the iPod, iPhone and iPad.
"Steve Jobs is important to us because the gifts he gave mankind are innumerable. He gave us the gifts of elegance, of clarity, of drive," wrote TechCrunch's John Biggs in a reflection on Jobs' contributions. "He gave us computers that spawned industries, phones that paid millions of salaries. He made it so I can Facetime from the road with my children before they go to bed and not have to worry about connection issues, downloads, fiddling. The stuff he made just works."
Yet for someone steeped in Buddhist teachings, Jobs' management style wasn't exactly placid. "Everybody’s got a Steve-Jobs-scream-to-my-face story," said Leander Kahney, author of the blog cultofmac.com. "Nose-to-nose, spittle coming out of his mouth."
All Things D’s Walt Mossberg, who developed a close relationship with Jobs, notes that the Apple co-founder "certainly had a nasty, mercurial side to him," but said "the dominant tone he struck was optimism and certainty, both for Apple and for the digital revolution as a whole." Mossberg recalls 90-minute phone conversations he had with Jobs in 1997 on the weekends, discussions that "revealed ... the stunning breadth of the man."
Jobs was also highly regarded for his vision and ability to see years into the future, and also for his exacting attention to detail. Google executive Vic Gundotra shed light on Jobs’ exacting nature in an anecdote he shared on his Google+ profile in August, following Jobs’ resignation. Gundotra described an urgent phone call he received from Jobs:
"So Vic, we have an urgent issue, one that I need addressed right away. I've already assigned someone from my team to help you, and I hope you can fix this tomorrow" said Steve.
"I've been looking at the Google logo on the iPhone and I'm not happy with the icon. The second O in Google doesn't have the right yellow gradient. It's just wrong and I'm going to have Greg fix it tomorrow. Is that okay with you?"
Of course this was okay with me. A few minutes later on that Sunday I received an email from Steve with the subject "Icon Ambulance". The email directed me to work with Greg Christie to fix the icon.
Jobs was famously wise, and the commencement address he delivered at Stanford University in 2005 remains an iconic text among his adherents.
"Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart," he told those assembled. "Stay hungry. Stay foolish."