Steve Jobs, who tranformed our use of technology in four arenas — computers, phones, film and music — died Wednesday at age 56. The co-founder of Apple had been battling pancreatic cancer and took several leaves of absence before stepping down as CEO in August.
Jobs left an indelible mark on an industry that he helped create back in 1976, when he and co-founder Steve Wozniak started Apple with $1,300. Wozniak handled the engineering, while Jobs took charge of marketing. But it was Jobs' sense of taste that marked even early Apple products like the Apple II.
Over the years, Apple products became known for the aesthetic style that differentiated them from the clunky boxes of competitors. While Apple never dominated the market for personal computers — for much of its existence, it never garnered more than a 10 percent market share — the Apple "look" made its products a fashion and style statement for purchasers while offering advances in ease of use that competitors scrambled to match.
Born in San Francisco to a Syrian immigrant father and adopted by Paul and Clara Jobs, he showed an early aptitude for electronics. He and Wozniak met in high school and began collaborating on electronic products, including a box that allowed users to make free long-distance calls.
Eight years after founding Apple, Jobs set up a separate unit at Apple and created the first mass-produced personal computer with a graphical interface. Instead of typing long strings of commands, users could point, click and drag objects — acts that are so commonplace today that many computer users are unaware that there was once another, far more difficult way.
Jobs did not invent the graphical interface — he saw an expensive early prototype — but he adapted and improved the concept for the Lisa, a $10,000 desktop that was a flop, and finally the Macintosh, introduced with much fanfare in 1984 with a 60-second Super Bowl commercial. The Mac caught on and launched the company into prominence.
Over the years, Jobs developed a reputation as a difficult taskmaster; many Apple employers were fearful of an encounter with "Steve," and he was known to fire engineers who disagreed with him. But his uncompromising standard led to beautiful and easy-to-use products.
Interviewing him as a reporter could be as terrifying as working for him. He never really trusted the media, but he knew how to use it to his advantage. Apple was one company that limited leaks of information and kept a better lid on new products than competitors.
I interviewed Jobs several times while working at Fortune magazine, and even in Apple's early years, he had already developed that sneering disdain for questions that he didn't like or didn't want to answer. Our longest interview took place in 1983 when he brought in John Sculley, president of PepsiCo, to help refine the company's marketing approach to consumers.
It was the honeymoon period, and Jobs clearly felt he had a catch in Sculley. Jobs tolerated my questions, tried to hide his annoyance at others and finally just deferred to Sculley, who was more adept at dealing with journalists. Yet in less pressured enounters, when he came to Fortune to show us new products, he retained that boyish charm and the infectious persuasiveness that led some to accuse him of having a "reality distortion field" that somehow made eveything he said believable until he went away.
But Sculley soon began isolating Jobs and convinced the company's board to oust the erratic founder in 1985. Jobs did not just lick his wounds, however; he founded NeXT Computer, whose advanced operating system and graphics would one day lead Apple to buy the company and bring him back as CEO. While in exile, Jobs bought the digital graphics division of Lucasfilms Ltd. and created Pixar Animation Studios, which transformed the look of animation and proved that computer graphics could also deliver a good story.
Jobs was not afraid to take risks. There were plenty of failures at Apple. The Apple III was a bug-filled disaster, and the first portable Mac was so huge that one pundit compared it to a boom box. Apple has tried to crack the code for TV set-top boxes several times without much success. There was the G4 Cube, which looked like a glass box but was a lot less exciting; and the round mouse, which left you wondering which way you were pointing. Maybe the failures were inevitable in an enterprise that wanted to make products that were, in Jobs' parlance, "insanely great."
Jobs' vision of how consumers used technology enabled him to transform Apple — he dropped the "Computer" part of the name a few years ago — from a computer maker to a force that changed how we buy and consume music and what we do with our telephones. The iPhone was simply the best smartphone for several years, and his creation of the iTunes store and iPod made it easy — and legal — to download music. The iPad showed that Apple could make a succesful tablet computer when everyone else had flopped.
Now the experts are arguing whether he is the greatest CEO of our time. That may be hard to quantify. Surely, his death leaves a vast creative gap in an industry that desperately needs new ideas and new products. He will be insanely missed.
Joel Dreyfuss, managing editor of The Root, has been the editor of several major computer magazines.