Theo Gray was at the wheel of his car when he learned his friend Steve Jobs was dead. The call from his assistant came as a shock, not because Gray didn’t know of Jobs’s failing health—“I had some information about how bad he was”—but because it was difficult to comprehend a world without the legendary Apple co-founder. Jobs not only built one of the world’s most successful companies, with a market value of more than US$350 billion, but he elevated technology into the realm of the magical and gave us our first true glimpse of its potential. “I don’t know, maybe I was repressing the knowledge,” says Gray, who has known Jobs since 1988 and whose software company, Wolfram Research, has worked closely with Jobs and Apple for the past two decades. “I hoped maybe he would have another year or something.”
One more year. It boggles the mind to imagine what a digital dreamer like Jobs could do with 365 more days on this planet; the wonders he might conceive, or even the little annoyances of the mobile age he would inevitably solve. Jobs reshaped the world and how it communicates more in his 56 years than almost any other person of the last century.
It was why, moments after Apple Inc. confirmed Jobs’s death on Oct. 5, tributes began to pour in on sites like Facebook and Twitter, by the tens of millions. A few hours later, makeshift shrines popped up outside Apple stores throughout North America, Europe and Asia. President Barack Obama was moved to write: “Steve was among the greatest of American innovators—brave enough to think differently, bold enough to believe he could change the world, and talented enough to do it.” Steve Wozniak, who co-founded Apple Computers with Jobs in the 1970s, put it even more simply: “It’s like the world lost a John Lennon.”
On the surface, it seems like a strange reaction to the passing of a billionaire CEO, particularly during tough economic times when the ultra-wealthy are viewed with suspicion and, if they happen to work on Wall Street, pure contempt. Nor was Jobs a particularly sympathetic character. He was arrogant, estranged from much of his family, and there are countless tales of him verbally disembowelling employees who failed to live up to his own impossible expectations. Gray, tellingly, considers Jobs a friend not just because Apple was a big supporter of Wolfram Research, but also because Jobs never screamed at him. “He could be a real bastard,” says Gray.
Yet his character flaws seemed trivial next to his gifts: an uncanny knack for knowing what people wanted long before they did. He also had that rare talent among those in the tech world—an eye for aesthetics. Jobs would often say that he existed at the intersection of liberal arts and technology, but he also had the good fortune to arrive at precisely the right moment in space and time: the dawn of the Information Age in Silicon Valley. His preference for simplicity and eye-catching design, whether the sleek, talisman-like look of an iPhone or the smooth, touch-sensitive operating system that brought it to life, helped to humanize the often cold and impersonal world of computer technology just as it became central to people’s lives. “Prior to Steve Jobs, things that pushed bits around were ugly, ordinary and depressing,” says John Perry Barlow, the co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation who was also a long-time lyricist for the Grateful Dead and first met Jobs in the mid-1980s when the Apple CEO outfitted the band with Macintosh computers. “He managed to take a kind of magic and beauty and invest those objects with that.”
Like any good magician, Jobs understood the power of suggestion, and he used charisma, hyperbole and an absolute belief in his own abilities to win over both developers and customers—often described as his “reality distortion field.”
Jobs also understood, perhaps better than anyone else, that technology by itself was not nearly as important as what it made possible. “When you say, ‘I love my iPad or I love my Mac,’ you’re not talking about a piece of hardware, you’re talking about the channel through which you connect with your family,” says Gray. “Or it’s the device that you use to listen to your music, which is also very meaningful for you. It’s all of the things you do with technology that matter.”
The road to realizing his vision was seldom smooth. Jobs had almost as many failures as he did successes along the way. But when he hit, he hit big with devices like the iPod, iPhone and the iPad, revolutionizing entire industries in the process, all of which came in the last decade of his life. What’s more, he accomplished much of what he did despite—or perhaps because of—a ruthless disease that stalked him in his final years.
1955-1983: Connecting the dots
In the beginning, Steven Paul Jobs was supposed to be somebody else. His biological mother, an unmarried grad student from Wisconsin, had requested just one thing: she wanted her unborn child to be placed with a college-educated couple. “Everything was all set for me to be adopted at birth by a lawyer and his wife,” Jobs recalled, 50 years later. “Except that when I popped out they decided at the last minute that they really wanted a girl.”
Paul and Clara Jobs were not so demanding. After years spent trying to conceive, and nearly as long on an adoption waiting list, the California couple didn’t hesitate when the phone finally rang that winter night in 1955. The ecstatic parents named their new son Steve. (When the baby’s natural mother found out that neither Paul nor Clara had a post-secondary degree—Paul didn’t even finish high school—she refused to sign the final adoption papers. It wasn’t until months later, when the couple promised to send Steve to college, that she eventually relented.)
As an adult, Jobs often talked about how life was a connection of dots that can only be appreciated under the clarity of hindsight. Looking back, the “dot” that sent him to his adoptive parents was the start of a remarkable story that almost didn’t happen. “I was very lucky,” he told one interviewer.
A machinist by trade, Paul Jobs was, in Steve’s words, a “genius with his hands.” He served with the U.S. Coast Guard during the Second World War and, after settling in Silicon Valley in the early 1960s, spent countless hours in his garage, fixing up jalopies and selling them to students. His son could usually be found right beside him. When Steve turned six, his dad cleared off a piece of his workbench specifically for him. “He gave me some of his smaller tools and showed me how to use a hammer and saw,” Jobs told one interviewer. “He spent a lot of time with me, teaching me how to build things, how to take things apart, put things back together.”
His dad, though, was not his only early influence. In those days, the neighbourhoods of Silicon Valley were crawling with techies and engineers conducting cutting-edge work for firms like Hewlett-Packard and the Shockley Semiconductor Company. One of them was Larry Lang, who lived a few doors down from the Jobs house. Steve spent almost as much time in Lang’s garage as his own, tinkering with electronic equipment and assembling “Heathkits”: mail-order products such as amateur radios and receivers that took many hours—and much patience—to put together. Jobs would later say that those Heathkits helped him realize that everyday appliances, like the television in his living room, were not “magical” creations. “It gave [me] a tremendous level of self-confidence, that through exploration and learning one could understand seemingly very complex things in one’s environment,” he said. “My childhood was very fortunate in that way.”
Though infinitely curious and clearly gifted, Jobs was hardly a model student. He despised the routine and rigidity of the classroom, and spent most of his school day not only ignoring the teachers, but figuring out ways to torture them. He brought in snakes. He set off mini-bombs. Once, he and a fellow prankster figured out the combinations of every lock on the playground bike rack—and then proceeded to mix up all the bikes.
By high school, Jobs had grown even more enamoured with electronics. (He famously phoned Bill Hewlett, at home, to order some parts for an assignment.) But he was not the typical computer nerd; he spent as much time reading Shakespeare and listening to Bob Dylan tunes as he did fiddling with circuitry. In fact, if anyone at Homestead High was a tech geek, it was another Steve: Steve Wozniak.
Four years older than Jobs, Woz had only one dream in life: to be an engineer at Hewlett-Packard. He spent most of his waking hours designing advanced computer boards, and although his creations were far more elaborate than anything Jobs had ever done, his new friend did not require much of a tutorial. “Typically, it was really hard for me to explain to people the kind of design stuff I worked on, but Steve got it right away,” Wozniak later wrote in his autobiography. “And I liked him. He was kind of skinny and wiry and full of energy.”
Long before the pair co-founded the computer company that would change the world, they teamed up to build and sell little blue devices that could hack into phone lines and place free long-distance calls. The illegal venture netted them $6,000.
As promised, Paul and Clara did send their son to college (in Portland, Ore.), but his post-secondary career lasted all of one semester. He dropped out in the winter of 1973, and spent the next 18 months sleeping on friends’ floors and experimenting with LSD. “He admitted to me, on a number of occasions, how important the psychedelic vision had been to him, that his having taken LSD at a certain point had been a life-changing and positive event,” says Barlow. “Having there be beauty in the work was very much something that entered him at the point when he took acid.”
Jobs also sat in on the odd lecture, despite the fact that he was no longer enrolled at Reed College. His favourite class? Calligraphy. “I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great,” he once recalled. “It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.” Years later, those calligraphy classes would inspire the fonts found on the first Macintosh desktop.
For money, Jobs collected empty Coke bottles off the street. On Sunday nights, he would walk miles to the Portland Hare Krishna temple for a free supper, his “one good meal a week.” At one point, he went so far as to declare himself a fruitarian, convinced that eating only apples and bananas would eliminate the mucus in his body—and spare him from showering.
By 1974, Jobs and his fruity diet were back in Silicon Valley, working for Atari, the upstart video game company. It was the last place he wanted to be, but Jobs had run out of cash and was desperate for a paycheque. Most people in the office thought he was arrogant and rude and long overdue for a hot bath. His body odour became such an issue that Jobs’s boss transferred him to the night shift.
The switch didn’t bother him. Jobs was too busy planning his spiritual journey to India—and attending “primal scream” therapy sessions.
Yet as much as he immersed himself in the counterculture of his era, Jobs remained an electronics buff at heart. With Wozniak, he attended regular meetings of the Homebrew Computer Club, a group of local hobbyists who compared notes and shared their latest creations. Woz actually designed the original Apple I computer just to show off his superior skills to the other members. It was Jobs who saw something else entirely: a commercial product that people would pay for. “It was a weird situation,” Wozniak said, decades later. “He couldn’t design a computer—he was never a designer or a programmer—but he could understand it well enough to understand what was good and what was bad.”
The two friends officially joined forces on April Fool’s Day, 1976. Apple headquarters was the Jobs family garage.
Other companies, like Commodore and RadioShack, were already selling so-called personal computers, but most were designed for hard-core techies like Wozniak. Jobs had a much different vision: a slick, user-friendly machine that could fit on a table in your house or your office. The result was Apple II, the first computer with a stylish foam covering, a built-in keyboard and colour graphics.
As the legend goes, a prototype of the Apple II was unveiled at the 1977 West Coast Computer Faire in San Francisco. Jobs worked the display booth, dressed in the first suit he ever bought. “My recollection is we stole the show,” he later said. “A lot of dealers and distributors started lining up and we were off and running.”
Sales soared, from US$2 million in 1977 to US$600 million in 1981. By 1983, Apple was a Fortune 500 company, the fastest to ever join the list. Steve Jobs—barely removed from being an LSD-dropping, anti-bathing fruitarian—was suddenly the rock star of personal computing. His list of girlfriends included Joan Baez and Diane Keaton.
But behind all the success and all the magazine covers was another Steve Jobs: the notorious micromanager whose brilliance was only surpassed by his mood swings. He was such a rabid workaholic, such a stickler for perfection, that employees dreaded ending up in the same elevator as the boss. “He’d stop by and say: ‘This is a pile of s–t’ or ‘This is the greatest thing I’ve ever seen,’ ” one employee told the author of Little Kingdom, a book about Apple’s early days. “The scary thing was that he’d say it about the same thing.”
“Back then, he was uncontrollable,” Arthur Rock, a former Apple board member, told one reporter. “He got ideas in his head, and the hell with what anybody else wanted to do. Being a founder of the company, he went off and did them regardless of whether it ended up being good for the company.”
Even in his personal life, Jobs was stubbornly self-assured. When his on-again, off-again girlfriend gave birth to their baby daughter, he denied being the father—going so far as to swear in court documents that he was “sterile and infertile, and as a result thereof, did not have the physical capacity to procreate a child.” It was years before he finally admitted the truth.
But for all the complaints about his management style, public and private, Steve Jobs was nothing if not convincing. In 1983, while hunting for a new CEO, he persuaded Pepsi boss John Sculley to leave the soda pop business and join him at Apple. “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life?” Jobs asked him. “Or do you want to come with me and change the world?”
In time, Jobs would wish that Sculley chose the sugar water.
1984-1998: Booted into no-man’s land
Football fans tuning in for the Super Bowl in January 1984 endured several ads for personal computers that day, but only one would become a cultural touchstone. During the game’s third quarter, as the L.A. Raiders pummelled the Washington Redskins, a commercial for Apple Computer’s new Macintosh desktop left audiences stunned. In the now famous spot, directed by Ridley Scott and set in a dreary Orwellian world, a young woman in red shorts and a white shirt emblazoned with a Macintosh logo hurls a hammer at a towering video image of Big Brother, smashing the screen and freeing the masses from the oppressive grip of technology’s then-overlords, IBM.
Two days after the ad ran, amid intense buzz in the media, Steve Jobs took the stage at Apple’s annual meeting to unveil mankind’s techno-saviour in person. Clad in a black suit and green bow tie—the trademark black turtleneck and jeans would, mercifully, come later—Jobs lifted the new Macintosh from a bag, at which point the computer began to talk. “Hello, I’m Macintosh,” it said to wild applause.
It was a masterful achievement—both the TV spot and Jobs’s carefully scripted performance—and it showed Jobs was already becoming aware of his power to dazzle and amaze. Yet for all the awe the Macintosh launch inspired, and its elevated position in pop-culture lore, the debut marked the start of a long and difficult time in Jobs’s life.
Since 1981 Jobs had been intensely focused on the Macintosh project, setting up a dedicated team of 300 workers to bring the machine to life. Jobs, while still a difficult and demanding boss, nevertheless showered perks on the Macintosh team, like massages at their desks. However, the special treatment sowed resentment among other Apple engineers. At the same time, Jobs’s relationship with Sculley was growing increasingly strained as the chief executive sought more control over the company. With a slowdown in the personal computer industry and Apple’s share price in decline, analysts were openly speculating that Apple was ripe for a hostile takeover.
The company desperately needed the Macintosh to be a hit. Instead, after an initial flurry of interest, sales of the new computer came in far below expectations. The Macintosh was underpowered, and the lack of software for it kept business customers away. In April 1985, Sculley convinced the Apple board to strip Jobs of his management duties. Sculley put out a statement that Jobs would continue to be a “creator of powerful ideas and the champion of Apple’s spirit,” but in reality Jobs suddenly found himself in a no-man’s land at the company he’d created. He was kicked out of his office and moved to a small building across the street, which he nicknamed Siberia. For a couple of months he dragged himself into the office to take the occasional phone call, but with depression setting in, he eventually stopped visiting the Apple campus altogether.
That September, Jobs officially cut his ties to Apple and announced plans to start a new company, NeXT, taking with him a handful of Apple engineers. Jobs made it clear he had lots more to offer. “I want to build things,” he told an interviewer. “I’m 30. I’m not ready to be an industry pundit.” He steadily began to sell off his Apple shares, worth roughly US$100 million at the time, and plowed the money into NeXT with the plan of building workstations for the higher education and business markets. With his characteristic focus on aesthetics, he began by paying $100,000 for a designer to create the NeXT logo before there was even a hint of a product to sell.
For all the effort and money Jobs sank into NeXT, not to mention the major investors he brought on board, such as Texas billionaire Ross Perot, the NeXT computer failed to live up to expectations. Each machine cost $10,000 to build and, as with the Macintosh, lacked enough software titles to attract buyers.
Nor did it seem Jobs would succeed with his other investment at the time—a small special effects team he bought from Star Wars director George Lucas for $10 million and renamed Pixar. Jobs envisioned Pixar as a vehicle to build computers, but as the eventual success of the company would prove, Pixar’s real value lay elsewhere.
As Jobs struggled to keep NeXT and Pixar afloat, some asked whether he’d simply been lucky with Apple. One book, Accidental Millionaire: The Rise and Fall of Steve Jobs at Apple, argued Jobs had clung to Wozniak’s shirttails and that Jobs’s arrogance and mismanagement nearly destroyed Apple. Others were inclined to agree. Peter Drucker, the prominent management expert, had been warning that Jobs and Wozniak would not survive at Apple. “The Lord was singularly unkind to them—by giving them too much success too soon. They never got their noses rubbed in the dirt. They never had to dig. It came too easy.”
Jobs certainly wasn’t finding life outside Apple to be easy now. But while success continued to elude him in work, he finally found love. In 1990, he met Laurene Powell in a classroom at Stanford University where he was lecturing and she was enrolled in an M.B.A. After swapping phone numbers the two parted ways, but in the parking lot Jobs was gripped by a thought. “If this is my last day on Earth, would I rather spend it at a business meeting or with this woman?” He went back and asked her out on a date. They married the next year in a ceremony in Yosemite National Park that was presided over by a Zen Buddhist monk. (The couple would have a son and two daughters.)
Jobs’s fortunes soared in the mid-1990s, though it was only indirectly due to his efforts. After several Pixar short films began to garner awards, Jobs finally accepted that the company’s future lay in animation—though he was reportedly prepared to unload the company to Microsoft if it didn’t turn a profit soon. That wouldn’t be a problem. In 1995, Pixar’s first feature film, Toy Story, debuted in time for Christmas to rave reviews and packed theatres. The movie went on to gross more than US$350 million worldwide. Just two days after Toy Story’s first showing, Pixar went public. On the first day of trading the shares more than doubled, making Jobs an instant billionaire. A decade later Disney would buy Pixar for US$7.4 billion in Disney shares, making Jobs that company’s largest shareholder.
NeXT never did find success with its computers, but by the mid-1990s Jobs had shifted focus to developing a new and powerful operating system. At the same time, Apple, which had continued to struggle after Jobs’s departure, was on the hunt for a new OS for its computers. Apple bought NeXT for $430 million and reinstated Jobs as an interim CEO. Twelve years and two months after he’d been stripped of his responsibilities, Jobs had come full circle.
Not that Jobs’s return guaranteed instant success for the company. Apple was hemorrhaging cash, and its product lineup was weak. In a meeting with the board, at which Jobs appeared clad in shorts and a T-shirt, Jobs zeroed in on Apple’s core flaw: “The products suck! There’s no sex in them anymore!”
The resurrected Jobs faced doubters. Michael Dell, the founder and CEO of Dell Computer, said the best thing Apple’s board could do at the time was “shut it down and give the money back to the shareholders.” (Years later, when Apple’s stock market capitalization surged past that of Dell, Jobs couldn’t resist sending an email to Apple employees to mark the moment.) Jobs also horrified Apple loyalists in 1997 when he announced Bill Gates and Microsoft would make a US$150-million investment in the company and produce software for Macs.
Ignoring the noise around him, Jobs immediately set about streamlining Apple’s product offering, cancelling many products, including the Newton handheld device, and focused his efforts on what would prove to be the company’s saviour—the iMac. One of Apple’s designers, Jonathan Ive, had been toiling away on a translucent, multicoloured case at his workshop across the street from the main Apple campus, unappreciated by the company’s previous management team. Once Jobs discovered the designer’s enclave and his strikingly original case, Ive was tapped to design the company’s Internet Macintosh, which was renamed just before launch.
Critics pounced when they learned Jobs had purposefully not included a floppy drive in the iMac, but the decision only made Jobs seem prescient, since the little disks were soon considered obsolete thanks to expanding file sizes. The candy-coloured, all-in-one computer, which debuted in 1998, sent a shock wave through the industry. Apple was saved from bankruptcy, and Jobs was on the cusp of one of the greatest comebacks in business history. From the day he returned to Apple until his death, the company’s share price would climb a staggering 10,953 per cent. “I didn’t see it then,” he would later say in 2005, “but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again.”
Only this time as Jobs began at Apple again, the world had no inkling of the digital revolution he was about to unleash.
1999-2011: ‘What’s on your iPod?’
With the dust still settling from the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington in October 2001, Jobs was on the other side of the country preparing to launch Apple in a profoundly new direction. Media buzz had been percolating for a week after Apple sent out a press release inviting journalists to “the unveiling of a breakthrough digital device.” At the bottom of the invitation, there was a teaser: “Hint: it’s not a Mac.”
A curious crowd showed up to listen to Jobs explain why Apple had suddenly decided to enter the already crowded (and not terribly lucrative) market for portable digital music players. “This amazing little device holds 1,000 songs,” he said of the US$399 device balanced between his thumb and forefinger, as though he had just conjured it out of thin air. “And it goes right into my pocket.”
The iPod would turn out to be one of Apple’s most important products. Despite being in development for only six months, it single-handedly transformed the company from a maker of niche computers into a household brand. At one point, the iPod was the company’s single biggest source of revenue, accounting for more than half of all sales in 2006. But the initial reaction to the iPod’s release among analysts was one of indifference. There were already portable devices on the market that could play MP3 files, many of them cheaper and some of them with more memory.
Apple, however, benefited from an ad campaign that its New York agency came up with. It showed silhouettes of different types of people listening to their iPods (signified by a pair of white earbud-style headphones), cleverly suggesting the iPhone was not just a cool-looking gizmo but a device that could be used to express your individuality. Hence, the question that quickly became a cultural touchstone: “What’s on your iPod?” It was just one example of the way Apple’s products had begun to take on additional meaning in people’s lives.
While popular history sometimes ascribes the iPod’s runaway success to Jobs, the reality is he only played one part in bringing the device to life. With music downloading (much of it illegal) already in full swing on sites like Napster and others, Apple hired Tony Fadell, an engineer, to make a portable player. Fadell would become known as the father of the iPod and is said to be the first to envision Apple as a company built around music. To his credit Jobs recognized the iPod’s potential immediately and is said to have stipulated that an iPod’s buttons should have to be clicked no more than three times before a song started playing, otherwise people would get frustrated.
Jobs would also play a key role in the creation of the iTunes music store that launched in 2003. At the time, the big record labels were scrambling to save their once profitable businesses and had been working on subscription music models. But Jobs understood that people listened to music for more than just pleasure. It was a way to define themselves. And that meant they needed to own the music, just as they had collected records and CDs for decades. Jobs then set about negotiating agreements with the beleaguered music industry, arguing that 99 cents was the right price to charge for a single song. Of that, Apple took a healthy cut—about 22 cents. It wasn’t a great deal for the suffering music companies, but it was a phenomenal one for Apple. Jobs also knew that if iTunes was going to be successful, it needed to have a large customer base. So he took the unusual step (for Apple at least) of making the software available to PC users too, so long as they bought an iPod to go with it. Eight years later, iTunes now generates nearly US$1.5 billion every three months, selling everything from music and TV shows to video games and magazine issues.
For a man whose career had been a roller coaster of euphoric highs and crushing lows, Jobs was on top of the world. Then, during a routine abdominal scan one morning in October 2003, doctors discovered a growth in his pancreas. Though usually a death sentence, a biopsy revealed Jobs had a rare, but treatable, form of cancer. But Jobs was skeptical of mainstream medicine and pursued alternative therapies instead, including a special diet, much to the chagrin of Apple’s board of directors. He also kept his condition a secret from shareholders. It was only after he underwent surgery on July 31, 2004, that his health troubles were revealed publicly.
In an email to employees, Jobs said he had faced a life-threatening illness, but was “cured.” Instead, it was the start of a long—and mostly hidden—battle with the disease.
Shaken by his run-in with mortality, Jobs set to work with a sense of urgency. The iPod business was booming, but he could see the writing on the wall. People were already taking pictures with their mobile phones instead of carrying cameras, and it was only a matter of time before music players became redundant. He tasked a small team of 200 top engineers to work on what would eventually become the iPhone. At a June 2005 commencement speech given to graduates at Stanford, Jobs explained the impact the knowledge that he may not be long on this Earth had on his work. “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose,” Jobs said. “You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
Though much of the iPhone’s development was shrouded in secrecy, there were reports—usually based on anonymous sources—that suggested Jobs nearly drove the company over the edge in his bid to reinvent the cellphone. With prototypes still buggy and the clock ticking down to the iPhone’s scheduled unveiling at the annual MacWorld conference, Wired magazine reported on screaming matches that broke out in the hallways of Apple’s headquarters and engineers so frazzled from all-night coding sessions that they would quit only to rejoin the company a few days later after they had caught up on sleep.
The pressure was on. Jobs had already signed a five-year exclusive deal to sell his new phone with wireless giant Cingular, which would later buy AT&T’s wireless division, while it was still at the idea stage. “Steve and I met about two years ago in New York City, where he first shared with me his vision for this product,” said Stan Sigman, the head of Cingular when the iPhone was first unveiled in 2007. “We’ve been working on it for some time and, actually, entered into a contractual agreement without us ever seeing the device.”
Suffice it to say, this wasn’t the way the wireless industry had been used to operating. Having spent billions on their networks, carriers like AT&T believed they should be able to dictate phone design to manufacturers and control the customer experience. The cellphones themselves were mostly an afterthought—shiny baubles emblazoned with the network’s logo that were often given away for free. Jobs changed all that by making the iPhone the most important selling point, with Apple retaining complete control of marketing and design, says Scott Searls, a former senior vice-president of supply management for U.S. carrier T-Mobile. “Without a decent network or customer care, AT&T built its [wireless] business on the iPhone. Said another way, where would AT&T be today without it?”
The January 2007 launch of the iPhone at MacWorld was a big moment for Jobs. Back on stage, wearing his now-trademark black shirt and blue jeans, he told the crowd of giddy tech writers that they were about to witness history in the making. “Every once in a while a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything,” Jobs said. “One’s very fortunate if you get to work on just one of these in your career. Apple’s been very fortunate as it’s been able to introduce a few of these to the world.”
By the time the iPhone finally went on sale the following June, some cynical writers had taken to calling it the “Jesus phone,” with prospective customers lining up overnight outside Apple and AT&T stores just to get their hands on one. David Pogue, the technology columnist for the New York Times, captured the prevailing mood in a Web video when he belted out “I want an iPhone” to the tune of My Way.
Yet while there could be little doubt Apple had raised the bar when it came to smartphone design, it wasn’t immediately clear whether Jobs would have another iPod-like hit on its hands. Sales were good during the first weekend, with some 270,000 phones sold, but it wasn’t quite the bombshell many were expecting. In fact, many in the industry considered it a niche product up until the end of 2008, when it had captured about eight per cent of the global market in smartphones, compared to BlackBerry-maker Research In Motion Ltd.’s 17 per cent and Nokia’s 44 per cent. “It wasn’t until 2009 that smartphones just exploded,” says Paul Chapple, an executive with Samsung. “The iPhone truly did ramp up like a hockey stick. No one expected it to catch fire that way after sort of simmering for a few years.”
It should have been a triumphant moment for Jobs, but privately he continued to battle the illness ravaging his body. He was shockingly thin at a developers’ conference in June 2008, setting off a wave of speculation about his health. At the time, Apple said he was suffering from a “common bug.” But investors became increasingly worried when Jobs appeared at subsequent events looking even more frail. Suddenly enthusiasm for Apple’s shares slowed as investors faced the gruelling task of determining how much of Apple’s value was tied up in its sickly CEO. Critics argued Jobs’s health was “material” to Apple’s business. The situation ventured into the absurd when, in August, Bloomberg accidentally sent a pre-written obituary on Jobs to thousands of its news service clients. The following month Jobs, looking no healthier, took to the stage at an Apple event in front of a projected slide that said, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” The audience responded with a nervous laugh.
The attempt to make light of the situation did little to assuage concern. Jobs revealed in December that he would miss his annual keynote address at MacWorld and described his weight loss throughout the previous year as a “mystery,” although one that his doctors may have finally solved: “a hormone imbalance that has been ‘robbing’ me of the proteins my body needs to be healthy.” But barely a week later he backtracked and said his health problems were “more complex” than he originally thought, requiring him to take a six-month medical leave. In the meantime, Tim Cook, then the company’s chief operating officer, was placed in charge during Jobs’s absence.
It wasn’t until Jobs returned to work in June that the public learned he had undergone a liver transplant. Neither Jobs nor Apple provided details, but experts suggested the transplant had been necessary because his cancer had spread. Healthy or not, a rail-thin Jobs was back on stage at a September Apple event, where he received a standing ovation from the crowd. “I’m very happy to be here with you all,” Jobs said before thanking the family of the young man, in his 20s, whose donated liver would keep him alive for two more years.
That would turn out to be just enough time for Jobs to reinvent another industry. Only this time, he wasn’t venturing into brand-new territory as Apple had done with the iPod and iPhone. Instead, he would reach back in time for an earlier Apple idea that, ironically, he had killed in 1998 after returning to the company: the Newton and the concept of a tablet computer. Although Apple had been planning to release a tablet before the iPhone, Jobs switched gears in 2005, recognizing the importance of gaining an early foothold in the booming smartphone business. That didn’t stop him from leading people to believe Apple had just reinvented the wheel. “It’s unbelievably great,” he told the crowd at the iPad launch event, “holding the Internet right there in your hands.”
Few pointed out that the device was really just a giant iPhone without the phone. It hardly mattered. The iPad has been another resounding success for Apple, which now boasts nearly 70 per cent of the increasingly crowded tablet market. It’s a story that Ken Dulaney, an analyst at Gartner Research, has watched with particular interest. That’s because he was one of a group of people that developed the very first tablet computer, called the GRiDPad, nearly a quarter-century ago. “It was truly amazing to see how Jobs took a product that had languished for over 20 years and made it a blockbuster,” he says.
Postscript: Life after jobs
If industry insiders are to be believed, Jobs will continue to leave his stamp on Apple, and the digital world. It’s said that before he passed away he laid out detailed blueprints for several years’ worth of new products. He has also put in place a team of highly respected executives, starting with Cook, who stood in for Jobs during a launch event for the latest iteration of the iPhone last week.
“[Jobs was] a very thoughtful and careful person who was dedicated to this company,” says Gray. “I’m sure he’s done everything possible to have the right people in place to keep this going.” And it’s not like Jobs was the only one at Apple coming up with ideas, as the development of the iPod and iPad suggest. “There were other people there who are very competent and can do this.”
And yet, there’s still a widespread feeling that Jobs brought something special and irreplaceable to Apple’s mix. “Everybody calls him a visionary and he clearly was a visionary in some sense,” says Gray. “But what I think is much rarer and a bigger contributor to his success is that he not only had these good ideas about what the world would want, but he had the courage—and I don’t think there’s any other word for it—to actually bet his company and bet his fortune that he was right.”
Without Jobs, the world may be facing a future where technology goes back to being merely useful instead of beautiful. New gadgets and services will once again be measured by their features—more memory, faster processors—instead of intangibles like taste and style.
And then there’s that sense of magic, or “reality distortion field,” that Jobs seemed to be able to summon at will. Walt Mossberg, the influential technology columnist at the Wall Street Journal, wrote recently of private meetings he had with Jobs about yet-to-be-launched Apple products: “He’d insist—even in private—on covering the new gadgets with cloths and then uncovering them like the showman he was, a gleam in his eye and passion in his voice.”
In the end, of course, there was one aspect of reality that would prove impervious to Jobs’s powers. His mortality. Jobs’s death certificate, released earlier this week, confirmed what everyone suspected, but few outside of his inner circle knew for certain: his pancreatic cancer had finally caught up with him in the form of a related respiratory failure. That his death came barely a month after he stepped down as CEO suggests Jobs worked until the very end to realize his vision and shape his legacy. “I had a number of phone conversations with him fairly recently that convinced me even more that he really did have a plan, knowing that he had a limited time,” Gray says. “His work wasn’t done. This was a man that needed more time to finish what he wanted to do. But he just didn’t have it.”