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Steven P. Jobs was born on Feb. 24, 1955, into an era of rotary phones and room-sized computers. He died on Oct. 5, 2011, having contributed perhaps more than any other person to forging an age of personal computers, slick electronic tablets, and slender mobile phones with a thousand times more computing power than the old mainframes. Jobs was 56 when he died, of complications from pancreatic cancer. He was surrounded by friends and family, including his wife, Laurene, and their children.
Jobs was a total original. He was somehow able to blend iconoclasm, rock-and-roll, and chic industrial design with the nerd sciences, as well as the unseemly profit motive of the corporation. He made that contrary combination seem totally legitimate. His iconic products—iMac, iPod, iPhone, and iPad—literally changed the world, making people more connected in the virtual world and less so in the physical one. He had a knack for whipping customers and the media into frenzies of anticipation and adulation, and he often elevated the business of Apple (AAPL) with a touch of the poetic. “If the hardware is the brain and the sinew of our products, the software is their soul,” was one of the last things he said publicly, at an Apple event on June 6.
Apple will undoubtedly suffer without him. All the various aspects of his contribution have been chronicled since his resignation on Aug. 24, ad nauseam. Jobs harangued his employees into meeting the standards of his own lofty perfectionism, over and over. He canceled as many projects and prototypes as he approved, which ended up focusing Apple’s attention and resources on just a few game-changing products. He was relentless at manipulating the media, by alternately withholding access and then granting it, and with theatrical product reveals and occasionally belligerent interviews. He could turn a routine press conference to introduce a new gadget into something as anticipated as the Super Bowl.
At Apple’s presentation of the new iPhone on Oct. 5, Jobs’s absence was gnawingly felt. Apple’s new chief executive, Tim Cook, and his fellow execs exuded confidence and used a lot of the same intonations as Jobs. But they did not come near to expressing his vivacious spirit or his deepness of feeling about Apple and its future. It felt, in a way, like they were auditioning for something. Cook himself repeatedly used the word “momentum” to express the company’s progress. Apple surely has that—shares of its stock are up 4,000 percent over the last 10 years. But Steve Jobs never had to repeat a word like that.
Jobs believed the best-looking, easiest-to-use computers and devices were seamlessly integrated products where both the hardware and software were created by the same company. That conviction was wildly out of fashion in the 1990s, when Microsoft (MSFT) ruled the land and companies like Dell (DELL) and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) packaged computers around Bill Gates’s operating system and Intel’s (INTC) microchips. Jobs tenaciously stuck to his principles and his revival of Apple—beginning in 1997 but really gathering steam with the 2001 release of the iPod—was not only a triumph of his vision, but a wholesale rejection of the previous decade’s conventional wisdom. “Steve 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,” said President Barack Obama in a statement.
Silicon Valley will now be a different place. Tech companies here measure themselves against Apple; other CEOs compare themselves to Steve Jobs. Jobs had a role—the charismatic technology guru—that a generation ago was occupied by Robert Noyce, a co-founder of Intel. He seemed to somehow hover above the fellow entrepreneurs of his day. “Steve looked at us like we were stupid,” says Scott McNealy, the co-founder of Sun Microsystems and a friend of Jobs’s. “There are not many people I would take that from. I would take that from Steve.”
The list of possible candidates for Jobs’s lofty throne is short. Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com (AMZN), lives up in Seattle and has Jobs’s competitive ruthlessness and business insight, but not his product flair. Oracle’s (ORCL) Larry Ellison, Jobs’s best friend, arguably has had an impact on the world but mostly in the esoteric field of business computing, not consumer devices. Bill Gates, iconic in his own right, has withdrawn from technology into philanthropy. And his legacy is being gradually diminished by the decline of Microsoft and its inability to catch the wave of smartphones and tablets.
Maybe there are new Steve Jobses out there and we don’t yet know their names. “There will be figures like him again to fill these shoes. They just have not grown up yet,” says Steve Blank, a longtime Silicon Valley entrepreneur and historian. “People will look at Jobs and aspire to be him, and that is his lasting legacy. He set the gold standard for every company in the 21st century.”
Jobs was not just admired, he was loved. That was clear on Wednesday, when fans posted their thoughts on Twitter and Facebook. They also flocked to Apple stores around the world—those sparkling monuments to industrial design and connected devices that no one thought Jobs should build when he opened the first one in 2001. They left flowers, shared memories, and simply wanted to be part of what felt like a momentous event—the passing of an era. It brought to mind the death of John Lennon in 1980, and the emotional throngs that gathered in Liverpool and New York’s Central Park. Lennon was one of Jobs’s heroes, and Jobs used a photograph of him and Yoko Ono in the 1997 advertising campaign that espoused his own personal philosophy: Think Different.
Steve Jobs thought differently, and we all benefited. As a beloved innovator retreats into memory, he’ll be missed.