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The tech industry is a young person’s game: reinvented every five years by those fortunate enough to make a name with a brilliant idea and the tools to make it happen. There are, of course, exceptions, and Steve Jobs was perhaps the one figure in a fiercely competitive industry that everyone could recognize as brilliant over decades of work and that everyone could mourn when he left us before that work was done.
Jobs, easily the most successful, influential, and revered technology executive in American history, lost the battle of his life Wednesday surrounded by family. All you really need to know about Jobs is that he transformed three different industries during his years on this planet: personal computing, digital media, and telecommunications. The company he leaves behind is defining the modern era of computing.
In the hours after his death Wednesday, Jobs was being compared to American business legends such as Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. Certainly within the technology industry, the dominant force in Jobs’ home of Silicon Valley, there was no peer: Jobs’ ideas and decisions influenced two separate eras of the personal computing industry and set the stage for an expansion in mobile computing that is still just getting off the ground.
Bill Gates of Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) built a huge powerful company that also changed the world, but failed to move as quickly as Jobs to embrace an era in which mobile devices took center stage. Larry Ellison, a dear friend of Jobs, built an empire based on enterprise software but had little impact on the average person. Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google (NSDQ: GOOG) built the engine of the 21st century, but have had a harder time straddling the worlds of engineering, design, art, and marketing that Jobs oversaw with aplomb. Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook has clearly been studying Jobs, but has yet to run a public company.
Jobs was a figure that Silicon Valley will likely never see again, this industry’s version of Michael Jordan or Bob Dylan: prodigies that can’t be imitated and that grace our presence all too rarely. He was the only person that anyone took seriously as a representative of a company that changed our world time and time again, and despite his deserved reputation as an extremely difficult person to work for, Jobs was adored by his customers and those hoping to emulate his success.
A private man, Jobs saved most of his public thoughts for the meticulously rehearsed high-wire acts that redefined how technology companies present their products to the public. Those performances drew legitimacy from the body of work that Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) produced under the second era of his leadership, not to mention his ability to convince fish that they might want to purchase some extra water. But the Moses of this era of computing grew weaker before our eyes compared to the day he stood before Stanford graduates in 2005 and assured them that death was actually one of the greatest things about life: that death was “life’s change agent.”
As the news sunk in on a Northern California afternoon during which the sun finally broke through after a few days of unseasonable rain, the emotional reaction across the board was palpable when considering the life of a man who never settled for anything less than “insanely great.”
Anyone who has faced a health challenge has asked themselves the same questions: Have you made the most of your life? Can you remember what you once hoped you’d be and smile at your present self?
Steve Jobs, for all his brilliance and all his faults, was never scared of what anyone thought about his life and times. Perhaps the most amazing thing he accomplished over the past three years was his ability to drive Apple forward as his body deserted him, the indomitable will of a man who simply refused to acknowledge reality (or, failing all else, who would distort it as needed). Jobs met his health challenges with disdain, as if they were pesky component suppliers with an inflated sense of their own worth or half-witted competitors.
Ours is a young industry. The founders of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the ones who defined a generation of personal computing, are for the most part still with us.
Jobs taught that young tech industry two lessons: don’t ever settle, and don’t forget that you are here to change the world. He reminded us how fragile life can be every time he took the stage in the last three years of his life.
In many ways, it was inspirational: when even the mightiest of the masters of the tech universe is willing to press on against the odds in order to keep his life’s vision afloat, there’s little excuse for your own self-perceived foibles.
Few people actually knew Steve Jobs, but he’s been a part of everyone in the tech industry’s life for decades. It was hard to watch a giant fade, but there’s little doubt he left the world a better place than when he found it.
More on Steve Jobs in our archives.