World-changing inventor and businessman Steve Jobs dead at 56

Steve Jobs unveiling the iPhone in 2007. Image from Wikipedia.

There is no doubt in my mind that history books will revere Steve Jobs they way they do Thomas Edison, and I am not alone in this assessment. Jobs, who died Wednesday of pancreatic cancer, will be remembered as the man who changed technology and drove the information revolution.

Like Edison, most of Jobs’ inventions were not so much new technologies as they were repackaging existing technologies in a new and innovative way that blew consumers away and changed daily life for everyone. Edison is remembered for the phonograph, the first practical, commercial light bulb, and the motion picture. Jobs’ first world-changing invention was the personal computer, with his Apple I and Apple II designs. His second was the iPod, which completely revolutionized the music industry with the aid of the iTunes software. His third, of course, was the smartphone. In between, he found time to help jump-start the field of computer animation. Of course, all of these were collaborative efforts with many other innovators, but Jobs will be the one history remembers for the same reason it remembers Edison: he had the business sense and salesmanship to push these products into millions of homes around the world.

Jobs was Arab-American by birth, but was given up for adoption as a small child and was raised in Mountain View, California by Paul and Clara Jobs. He met Steve Wozniak as a summer worker at Hewlett-Packard. He was a college dropout, working for a time at Atari before traveling to India and converting to Buddhism. In 1976, he and Wozniak co-founded Apple Computers. At the time, computers were massive machines exclusive to laboratories and giant corporations, accessible only through a terminal and only with authorization. Jobs and Wozniak, using their knowledge of computer technology, came up with a simple computer that people could have in their homes with a TV-like display monitor. Their idea set the world on fire.

I said on fire. Where's the fire, Apple II? Do I have to do everything myself?

The Apple II would sell 6 million units, and soon other companies began getting in on the PC business, including established companies like IBM and Hewlett-Packard. Businesses, schools, and governments began to depend on these new personal computers to conduct their business, and of course plenty of ordinary people bought them, as well. The PC helped make the Internet something accessible to the public instead of being restricted to a handful of universities. Without the Apple II, it is likely I wouldn’t be writing this blog and you wouldn’t be reading it. Let that sink in for a minute.

But in less than eight years Jobs would be kicked out of Apple for what employees saw as an “uncontrollable” boss with an “autocratic style”. He attempted to start his own company with his own PC, the NeXT computer. But while the NeXT was applauded for being extremely advanced and a technical masterpiece, but the price was so prohibitive that it never caught on.

What did catch on, though, was Jobs’ side-project. He bought a little-known wing of Lucasfilm and renamed it Pixar. The renamed studio was experimenting with computer animation, and in 1995 it hit box office gold with Toy Story. Soon, Pixar was producing hit after hit: A Bug’s Life, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars, Wall-E and UP! all to its credits.

During this time, Apple was struggling and suffering in the wake of Microsoft’s rise. I remember when it was the standing joke that only a handful of die-hard nerds and Bill Gates haters used Apple. Then, in 1996, Steve Jobs wound up back at his first company when Apple bought NeXT. One quick political power play later, and Jobs was CEO of Apple once more. And Jobs had a plan to bring Apple back to profitability.

A plan with pretty, pretty colors

After dropping several projects that were going nowhere (and a few high-profile cannings that created a sense of fear among Apple employees), Jobs put Apple to work on the iMac, a computer that has been so successful it is still sold in some form or other and its sales continue to grow as it attracts ex-HP, ex-Dell, ex-Lenovo, and ex-every-other-competitor users.

Yet this was only the beginning. As we all know, he followed this up with the iPod, an MP3 player with an extremely user-friendly interface and works together with the free iTunes software that allows for legal music downloads at a low cost. This was followed by the iPhone, the first of the so-called smartphones that combined the abilities of a cell phone, a digital camera, and a computer with a super-cool touchscreen. Like the Apple II, it has entered the hands of millions and has inspired a generation of competing products. And of course, last year the iPad was unveiled, which similarly established the tablet computer industry.

But is hasn’t been easy on him. He began his fight with cancer all the way back in 2004. He even had a liver transplant in 2009. He ultimately resigned as CEO in August due to his failing health.

Already, tributes to the man have appeared across the world. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg called Jobs his “mentor and friend, according to BBC News. People are leaving flowers and notes at Apple stores, and laid wreaths out at his house. Apple flew its flags at half-mast at its headquarters, and Apple is planning a memorial ceremony Wednesday. In China, Apple’s largest market, millions of Chinese are paying tribute to the man the know as “Qiao Bangzhu”, roughly translating to “Master Jobs”. Of course, Apple stock dropped substantially on the news.

Jobs’ legacy is in our homes, our pockets, our DVD collections and/or Netflix accounts, our workplaces, our schools, and everywhere else you look. Just as Edison’s light bulb has become so ubiquitous we hardly notice it, so has the sight of people with the┬ácharacteristic┬átiny earbuds in their ears as their iPod plays their music, or people chatting or texting away on their iPhones while surfing the web.

Information from Wikipedia, BBC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and The Guardian.