Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple Computer, who has died at the age of 56 after a long struggle with cancer, was an inspirational and pioneering innovator who emerged at the dawn of the present age of computers, the internet and the electronic music revolution. His unique mix of personal characteristics made him pivotal to the rapid evolution which in recent decades created such extraordinary changes in the workplace and in the social habits of many millions.
He made mistakes and he made enemies. He dropped out of university and once got sacked from the company he set up. But he was indisputably one of the outstanding founding fathers of the modern computing and electronic era. He achieved breakthroughs by employing the vision which made him one of the secular demi-gods of the electronic age. In his products and his person he was one of the coolest of the cool.
He was idolised by many computer enthusiasts though much disliked by his detractors. But his computers, and later his phone and music technology, were eagerly sought after and sold in their millions. Their attraction was that they transcended the mundane level of mere usefulness to soar into the realms of the must-have.
Since his early days he had looked destined to play a role in the emerging golden age of computers: he even grew up in Silicon Valley, the Californian cradle of innovation where he had an interesting and unusual early life. His parents were unmarried, his mother an American, his father a Syrian Muslim who went on to become a professor. Jobs related: "My biological mother was a young unwed college graduate student and she decided to put me up for adoption. She felt very strongly that I should be adopted by college graduates."
The arrangement almost fell through when his mother discovered that the adoptive couple, Paul and Clara Jobs, were not graduates. But shegave the go-ahead after they gaveassurances that he would receive a college education.
He would eventually go to college – though only for six months – but long before then he immersed himself in technology, attending after-school lectures at the local Hewlett-Packard computer plant. When he was aged around 12, finding himself short of some components he boldly telephoned Bill Hewlett.
"He was real nice," Jobs recalled. "He didn't know me at all, but he ended up giving me some parts and he got me a job that summer working on the line, assembling frequency counters. Assembling may be too strong – I was putting in screws – but it didn't matter. I was in heaven."
Around this time he met Steve Wozniak, another electronics buff who was a few years older, describing him as "the first person I met who knew more electronics than I did." The two would work closely together over many years.
Jobs went to Reed College in Oregon but never really engaged academically, while his parents struggled to pay the fees. "I was spending all of the money my parents had saved their entire life," he said. He dropped out, though he continued attending a few classes in subjects, such as calligraphy, which caught his fancy. He slept on the floors of student friends, raising money by collecting the five-cent deposits on Coke bottles.
Returning to California, he went to work for Atari, a company making computer games. After a time hetravelled to India in a quest, it is said, for spiritual enlightenment, dabbling in both eastern religion and psychedelic drugs.
When he returned to California he quickly came to realise that his destiny lay not in the mystical but in the electronic. He and Wozniak, working in various garages, came up with the Apple computer, a project which employed innovation, foresight and skilful marketing.
Bill Gates's Microsoft was a farbigger enterprise, but it was Apple that caught the imagination with its more stylish design. Jobs pored over every apparently inconsequential detail. He took things from the utilitarian to the aesthetic, projecting his inventions as the height of individuality. In a sense he personalised the personal computer. "The thing that bound us together at Apple was the ability to make things that were going to change the world," he enthused. "We all worked like maniacs and the greatest joy was that we felt we were fashioning collective works of art."
Jobs was a new type of technological entrepreneur for a new generation. He elevated the image of computers from that of functional gadgets into that of vital lifestyle accessories. What Microsoft produced was immensely useful but what Jobs and Apple exuded was a wow factor which captivated millions. He boasted: "Woz and I started Apple, we worked hard, and in 10 years Apple had grown from just the two of us in a garage into a $2 billion company with over 4,000 employees." He was 30 years old.
But an attempt to graft a professional management structure on to Apple did not go well and several new product lines flopped. After a boardroom battle Jobs found himself out of the company, hugely wealthy but unemployed. "I got fired," he recalled. "How can you get fired from a company you started? At 30 I was out, and very publicly out – I was a very public failure. What had been the focus of my entire adult life was gone, and it was devastating."
But, daunted only momentarily, he set out to make a fresh start. He launched a new computer company, which at first did not do well. But he also bought, for $10 million, a computer graphics business, Pixar, from the film-maker George Lucas, of Star Wars fame. This did phenomenally well, becoming what was described as the most successful animation studio in the world, producing the world's first computer animated feature film, Toy Story, and earning billions.
After a decade outside Apple, Jobs made a triumphant return to the company he had co-founded. He revived both its flagging fortunes and its reputation for innovation, diversifying into areas such as music software and mobile phones. He not only identified gaps in the market but invented entirely new markets. "Real artists ship," he would preach. Estimates of his personal wealth reached $5 billion.
After his return to Apple he was seen as more focused, more methodical and better at making money. But he was also viewed as much more arrogant: a former colleague commented sardonically that he "would have made an excellent king of France." The writer Michael Wolff called him "the artiste as businessman – famously odd, difficult, flaky, rude." A CNN report on Jobs was distinctly uncomplimentary. It declared: "No CEO is more willful or more brazen at making his own rules, in ways both good and bad. He oozes smug superiority, lacing his public comments with ridicule of rivals which he casts as mediocre, evil and – worst of all – lacking taste."
Jobs pulled no punches in scoffing at competitors. "The only problem with Microsoft," he jibed, "is that they just have no taste. I don't mean that in a small way. I mean that in a big way, in the sense that they don't think of original ideas and they don't bring much culture into their products."
He was not the mellowest boss in the world, at times inspirational but at others calling employees stupid, according to one of his many biographers. He was also said to be sometimes too persuasive, employing his salesmanship to overpower arguments even when he was in the wrong. His skills were said to create a "Jobs reality distortion field".
In 2004 he revealed he had pancreatic cancer but maintained that it was of a curable type, and that his recovery prospects were good. In 2009, however, he announced he was taking a leave of absence for health reasons.
These developments sent tremors through the markets since his personal talents were regarded as crucial to the continued success of Apple. In January 2011 the company said he was taking a further leave of absence and in August he stood down as CEO.
Steve Jobs will be remembered as one of the most important pioneers of the modern computing age. He was a phenomenon who emerged from the sub-culture of the hippie to become a yuppie. He developed into a sometimes bullying boss but above all into a unique figure – part entrepreneur, part auteur – who helped shape the modern electronic age.
Steven Paul Jobs, entrepreneur: born San Francisco 24 February 1955; Joint Founder, Apple, Chairman 1975–77, 1981–84, Chief Executive Officer 1995–2011; Chairman and CEO, Pixar Animation Studios 1986–2006; one daughter; married 1991 Laurene Powell (one son, one daughter); died Palo Alto, California 5 October 2011.