Jobs's contribution? More than anyone else, he brought digital technology to the masses. As a visionary, he saw that computers could be much more than drab productivity tools. Instead, they could help unleash human creativity and sheer enjoyment. A marketing genius, he conceived of elegant products that captured consumers' imaginations. And as a relentless perfectionist, he came up with creations that actually delivered on their promise -- raising the bar for rivals. "From the time he was a kid, Steve thought his products could change the world," says Lee Clow, chairman of TBWA/Chiat/Day and Jobs' longtime ad man.
So far, 49-year-old Jobs has done just that three times. Soon after he formed Apple in 1976 with high school friend Steve Wozniak, the Apple II became the first PC to hit it big. While the power of computing formerly had been available only to techies, it was suddenly delivered to classrooms, dens, and offices. A quarter-century later, he rocked the music business with Apple's iPod music player and iTunes online store. This created a blueprint for the music biz in the Net era. And his Pixar Animation Studios was the first to show that computer animation could be used to tell imaginative, touching stories.
In many ways, Jobs's career is the definitive Silicon Valley story. Growing up with his adopted parents when the area was dotted with fruit orchards, he caught the tech bug early. He got his first job at 12 after calling Hewlett-Packard Co. (HPQ ) President Bill Hewlett and landing an internship. Using HP as their model, he and "Woz" focused only on breakthrough products. Apple's blockbuster initial public offering in 1980 made Jobs tech's first celebrity CEO. Then came the Mac in 1984. The first to pack new-fangled ideas such as icons, the mouse, and computer graphics into one easy-to-use machine, the Mac cemented Jobs's standing as a prodigy.
His youthful perfectionism nearly killed his career. When the original Mac fell short of expectations, he refused to alter its features and was booted from Apple in 1985. At his next company, NeXT Inc., he created a $10,000 PC that was packed with innovations, but too pricey for the market. More worrisome, Jobs poured $50 million of his own money into the struggling Pixar.
His reversal of fortune began in 1995. Pixar's Toy Story became a box-office smash. Then, just months after Apple bought NeXT for $400 million in 1996, Jobs took the helm of the foundering company. He quickly breathed life back into it, with the lovable iMac. Then came the iPod in 2001, and iTunes in 2003 -- the first time anyone had convinced all the major record labels to sell their songs online.
Few doubt Jobs' management chops anymore. And with his prognosis looking good, he's back working part-time. "That was one of the things that came out of this whole experience [with cancer]. I realized that I love my life. I love [being with] my family, and I love [running] Apple and Pixar. I am very lucky." Given his track record, so are the world's consumers.
By Peter Burrows in San Mateo, Calif.