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Sunday, Oct. 9, 2011
The man who dented the universe
Steve Jobs, the visionary entrepreneur, passed away at the age of 56. Few people have had a more profound influence on the world. Mr. Jobs' genius lay in his ability to see technology for what it is — a tool that has the capacity to transform how we live.
His success reflected his ability to humanize technology, making it accessible, useful and beautiful. He ushered in the age of personal technology and then refined it, never shying away from his vision, even when it meant destroying his earlier work. He aspired to make, and ultimately succeeded in making, a dent in the universe.
The outline of Mr. Jobs' life is the stuff of legend. He was put up for adoption by his natural parents who were not ready to take on the responsibilities of child rearing. A precocious child, he was fascinated by electronics. That interest led to an association with Mr. Steve Wozniak in high school. The two developed ways to hack the telephone system and make free calls. He dropped out of college after a single semester but stayed on to audit classes that interested him. That period, he later enthused, validated his sense of curiosity and intuition.
Mr. Jobs eventually returned to Silicon Valley, where he grew up, to work at Atari, a video game manufacturer. After a trip to India, he hooked up again with Mr. Wozniak who had developed what was to become the Apple I computer; they formed the Apple computer company in 1976, and wowed the computer world with the Apple II a year later. Sales reached $600 million by 1981, and by 1983, Apple was in the Fortune 500.
By the time he was 29, Mr. Jobs was hailed as the "father of the computer revolution."
Then, he stumbled. Mr. Jobs' next project, the Lisa, failed. And while the Macintosh computer ultimately revolutionized personal computing — the iconic "1984" commercial still stands alone — initial sales disappointed. The Apple board of directors stripped him of his operational role and he left the company in 1985. His next venture, NeXT Inc., aimed to build a workstation computer for higher education, but it too failed commercially.
Then his luck turned. In 1986, he invested much of his money in The Graphics Group, a struggling graphics supercomputing company. Nine years later, the company, renamed Pixar, transformed the movie industry with the release of "Toy Story." When the company went public after a string of box-office successes, Mr. Jobs emerged a billionaire.
In 1997 Mr. Jobs returned to Apple as an adviser and he became chief executive again in 2000. This time his tenure was marked by one triumph after another. Recognizing the centrality of music to everyone's life, he pushed Apple into the digital music business, creating iTunes and then the iPod music player. With a revolutionary pricing scheme — all songs for a single price of 99 cents — he rewrote the rules of the music industry. Apple's music division now generates nearly 50 percent of Apple's revenue.
The iPod was the first triumph in Mr. Jobs' new life. The iPhone followed in 2007, again transforming an industry that was central to everyday life. The initial goal was to sell 10 million handsets in its first year, or about 1 percent of the global cellphone market. It exceeded that goal by selling 11.6 million units; by the end of 2010, nearly 90 million units had been sold.
Last year, the iPad was released, a device that will again revolutionize digital communications. It has already sold 30 million units since its release. Most remarkably, the iPad is likely to end the era of the personal computer, making Mr. Jobs both the father of an era and its destroyer.
Some would say that failure helped make Mr. Jobs the success he was. In a much quoted commencement address at Stanford University in 2005, he urged his audience to "Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish." He reminded them that "Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. ... Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition."
He certainly trusted his own judgment. He believed in taste (particularly his own) and aimed to uncover the "simple, elegant reality" of every product. He could be maddening in the process, being involved in even the smallest details, from the packaging of products to the shape of plugs and sockets. His tantrums were legendary; yet, he also inspired a loyalty and enthusiasm among colleagues and consumers that verged on the cultlike.
For some, the measure of his success was the transformation of a ho-hum computer company into a $380 billion technology titan that became the world's most valuable company (in terms of market value) earlier this year. He was worth $8 billion when he died last week of pancreatic cancer.
For many others — and Mr. Jobs himself, who claimed it was never about the money — his legacy will be the way he transformed the relationship between people and technology.
Mr. Jobs believed that technology should be a simple and inextricable part of our daily lives. It is a measure of how successful he was that such a sentiment seems obvious today; yet, a little over a decade ago, humans and machines seemed fated to eternal opposition. No longer. For that, we have Mr. Steve Jobs to thank.