Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Computer Inc., and the man some called a modern-day Leonardo Da Vinci, died Wednesday at the age of 56. From pioneering the modern GUI (the way we click on images on our computer screens), to the introduction of the iPod, iPhone and iPad, Jobs made a career out of forever changing the way people use technology.
Although Jobs’ death will have a profound impact on his family, friends, and the company he started in a garage in 1976, his sudden death on Wednesday was not unexpected. Jobs took a medical leave of absence from Apple in January due to complications from cancer and stepped down as CEO in August because he could “no longer meet [his] duties and expectations.”
Born February 24, 1955, and later adopted, Jobs grew up in what was then the small community of Cupertino, California. By the time he was a teenager, he already demonstrated the technical genius and pioneering spirit that would make him famous. He phoned William Hewlett, president of Hewlett-Packard, to request parts for a school project. Jobs not only got the parts he needed, he got a job offer at HP.
During his time at HP, Jobs became friends with Steve Wozniak, who possessed a natural talent for assembling electronic hardware. When Jobs turned 21, he and Wozniak launched Apple Computer Inc. using “startup capital” from the sale of Jobs’ Volkswagen van. They built their first commercial computer, the Apple 1, in Jobs’ parents’ garage in 1976.
The following year, Apple unveiled the Apple II computer. Jobs was among the first computer engineers to recognize the appeal of the mouse and the graphical interface, which let users operate computers by clicking on images instead of writing lines of text code on the screen.
The first Apple Macintosh computer was released in early 1984 and was followed by impressive sales. Unfortunately, by 1986, Jobs’ frequent arguments with colleagues ultimately resulted in his departure from Apple. During his absence, Jobs founded NeXT Computer which helped develop much of the code that would later be used for Apple OS X.
In 1996, Jobs returned to Apple when the company bought NeXT. Within a year, Jobs was running Apple again and he literally took center stage with the announcements of the the highly profitable iMac, PowerBook and iBook products. The only “failure” during that time was the Power Mac G4 Cube (sometimes jokingly referred to as the “iCube”). The Cube was based in small part on a cube-shaped workstation originally developed by NeXT. Unfortunately for Jobs, sales of the G4 Cube were flat and the product was discontinued in 2001.
Of course, most people don’t remember the failure of the Cube in 2001 because it was during that same year that Jobs took the stage to introduce the first iPod, that little white MP3 player that transformed the way people listen to music. Sales within the first two years of the iPod’s release were so impressive that iPod revenue was on course to exceed Mac sales.
Jobs followed the success of the iPod with iTunes in 2003, the iPhone in 2007, the App Store in 2008, and the iPad in 2010. During this decade of “iDevices” Jobs became even more famous for his stage presence during product announcements and his devoted legions of Apple followers.
Behind the stage, Jobs was gradually rebuilding his sometimes unpleasant reputation as a hard-working, difficult boss who oversaw development of each Apple product and rejected prototypes that didn’t meet his exceedingly demanding standards.
As Apple stock prices soared with every new announcement, the first decade of the 21st century became “the decade of Apple” (and also called “the decade of Steve” by CNN). Today, Apple has sold more than 275 million iPods, more than 100 million iPhones and more than 25 million iPads worldwide (CNN). These sales figures are fueled in part by more than 300 retail stores in 11 countries, all of which are operated by Apple.
Unfortunately, at the same time that Apple was on course to become one of the biggest financial success stories in history, Steve Jobs was diagnosed with cancer. In 2004, he announced to his employees that he was being treated for pancreatic cancer. His rapid loss of weight and unhealthy appearance at keynote speeches caused many people to suspect the worst. Concerns over Jobs’ failing health only got worse when Bloomberg’s wire service accidentally published Jobs’ obituary in August of 2008.
Jobs took a six-month medical leave of absence in 2009 to undergo a liver transplant. He took another medical leave in January this year before resigning as Apple’s CEO in August.
What does this mean for Apple?
The multimillion-dollar question is, “How will the death of Steve Jobs impact Apple?” The truth is that no one knows … but we can make some educated guesses based on observations of the company’s successes and failures.
Jobs was not only a co-founder of Apple and the recognized voice of the company, but his hands-on approach during product development meant that every Apple product was a “Steve Jobs product.” Not only did this help Apple deliver consistent design elements for everything from iPods and iPhones to MacBook Airs and iPads, but it also meant that Jobs took responsibility not just for success, but for failure as well.
Jobs nominated COO Tim Cook (pictured next to Steve Jobs at left) to replace him as Apple’s CEO, but it’s unknown whether Cook will step in and take the same hands-on leadership roll … not just taking the reins but taking center stage and taking full responsibility for the success or failure of each new product.
Will future Apple products be “Tim Cook products” or will Apple’s future rest in the hands of a team approach? Perhaps Apple will benefit from a kinder, gentler CEO who embraces team input rather than defining the direction of every product? On the other hand, Apple tried the “team approach” when Jobs left the company in 1986 and the team at Cupertino floundered in financial mediocrity without the singular vision of a hands-on leader.
The future of Apple might not be certain, but Steve Jobs created a solid foundation upon which Tim Cook and the rest of the team at Apple can build. The trick will be whether or not someone is willing to take full responsibility for maintaining and building upon the house that Steve built from those humble beginnings in his parents’ garage.