In billions of song downloads, finger swipes and sleek white headphones, Steve Jobs lives on.
The man who brought the world its most popular phone, tablet and virtual record store died on Wednesday at the age of 56. But the legacy Mr. Jobs leaves behind – that of a man whose vision ended up disrupting almost every creative and commercial industry on Earth – is easily comparable to the titans of the modern business world, alongside the likes of Edison and Ford.
“He's the kind of guy who won't come again for a long time,” said Jay Elliot, who reported to Mr. Jobs for more than five years as the head of Apple's operations group.
“He always operated under the regime that the consumer is all powerful. When you pick up a product, you think, this is what he was there for.”
Over a span of 10 years – and following a decade during which he lived in corporate exile, having been ousted from the company he co-founded – Mr. Jobs did for mobile consumer products what Henry Ford did for transportation. With the launch of the iPod MP3 player in 2001, Apple ushered the era of the truly portable computer, one that was more wallet than laptop.
Skeptical at first, consumers eventually fell in love with the minimalist, easy-to-use gadget. At a media event one day before Mr. Jobs's death, incoming Apple CEO Tim Cook said Apple had sold 300 million iPods in the past decade, making it one of the most popular products ever. So popular did iPods become that the very sight of white headphones is now eternally associated with Apple's products.
His ubiquitous gadgets were a cultural phenomenon, but Mr. Jobs also envisioned an ecosystem. He helped build a massive online store to provide his customers with digital content, which in turn spurred sales of Apple's mobile devices. By the time the company released the iPhone in 2007, it was well on its way to becoming not only the premier designer of mobile gadgets, but the most important middleman in all kinds of digital transactions, from song downloads to app purchases.
“He demonstrated, really, the power of competition,” said Wade Oosterman, president of Bell Mobility. “Apple launched the iPhone, everybody raised their game, and as a result, the functionality and the benefit you get from smart phones in general and a whole new generation of super phones, it really started with that.”
Throughout Apple's meteoric rise – it briefly surpassed Exxon Mobile this summer to become the most valuable company in the world – Mr. Jobs remained its public face and central driving force. Perhaps the most significant aspect of the legacy he leaves behind is how every successful decision he made seemed to fly in the face of conventional wisdom. The iPod wasn't the first MP3 player on the market, but quickly dominated the product category. The consumer smart phone market didn't exist before the iPhone, and yet the company created it, and convinced countless business users to ditch their BlackBerrys in the process. The entire technology industry had given up on tablets more than a decade before Mr. Jobs greenlighted the iPad. Today, seven out of every 10 tablets sold are iPads, and the rest of the industry is struggling to catch up.
“Jobs had a truly yogic way of thinking,” said Ray Sharma, chairman of Toronto-based mobile app developer Xtreme Labs. “He has uniquely upended the computer, digital movie, music, and mobile industries. He will be an inspiration for the ages and we will sorely miss his genius.”
The extent to which Mr. Jobs transformed Apple into one of the most powerful companies on Earth could be seen just a day before he died, during an iPhone product launch event at Apple's corporate campus in California. During the presentation – almost as an aside – an Apple executive announced that the company will soon release an application that lets users send physical greeting cards from their mobile devices. Instantly, shares of the world's biggest greeting card companies tanked.
“That Apple is now arguably the world's most valuable company, and a firm that is synonymous with disruptive innovation across a wide swath of industry sectors, is a testament to Steve Jobs the entrepreneur and to his extraordinary legacy,” said serial entrepreneur and mobile industry expert Mark Ruddock.
For his part, Mr. Jobs saw his achievements in a clear light, shaped in large part by thoughts of his own mortality.
“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life,” he said during a Stanford commencement ceremony in 2005.
“Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
With a report from Iain Marlow