If you're going to try to sum up the career of the man who brought computers to the multitudes, you might as well start by talking about the ads. There was the 1984 Mac debut (If you can point, you can use a Macintosh), the 1981 "revolutionaries" series (Ben Franklin designing a kite on his Apple II) and the 1977 Apple II "Simplicity Brochure," which laid out the philosophy that would guide the company on its journey to something like world domination: "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication."
Probably no image encapsulates him better, though, than this 1977 tableau of domesticity: a blandly handsome man sitting at a kitchen table, the keys of an Apple II beneath his fingers; a blondish lady in a flannel shirt peering back at him from across the room while chopping a salad.
"Normal people doing normal people things," said Steve Wozniak, the engineer who will always be known as a co-founder of a company that last employed him on a full-time basis in 1987. "Steve did all the little ads when we were kids, and we would take them around to trade shows. A dentist might see a brochure and say I'm gonna get one of these things called a computer. A teacher might want one. Not just the geeks from the geek clubs. His role from day one was bringing the computer to the normal people."
Steve -- the other Steve, the most famous Steve in the world, perhaps -- is of course Steve Jobs, who announced his resignation as the CEO of Apple on Wednesday. Jobs may not in fact be God, but few industrialists have ever commanded such a large and worshipful following, and over the last 24 hours, several other deities of Silicon Valley have added their fittingly respectful tributes to the global chorus of praise.
"I think his brilliance has been well-documented, but what gets forgotten is the bravery with which he's confronted his illness," Howard Stringer, the CEO of Sony, told Reuters.
"He uniquely combined an artist's touch and an engineer's vision to build an extraordinary company," Google's chairman Eric Schmidt said.
And then there's Vic Gundotra, another Google executive, who offered this anecdote about returning a missed call from Jobs (it was posted on his Google-plus page, of course):
"Hey Steve - this is Vic", I said. "I'm sorry I didn't answer your call earlier. I was in religious services, and the caller ID said unknown, so I didn't pick up".
Steve laughed. He said, "Vic, unless the Caller ID said 'GOD', you should never pick up during services".
Jobs' story has been told many times by many tellers, and has several of the hallmarks of the classic mystical journey: the unusual circumstances of his birth, the days of monastic impecuniousness, the startling rise to power and acclaim, the departure from the fold, the triumphant return, the intimacy with death. Born in San Francisco in 1955, he was adopted by Paul and Clara Jobs, and grew up in the California milieu that Joan Didion would liken to Bethlehem. He grew his hair long, bummed meals from a Hare Krishna temple, and took Timothy Leary's advice literally, dropping out of Reed College after a semester. He journeyed to India in search of nirvana, hallucinated, and came back a bald-headed Buddhist.
The Buddha preached a message of simplicity, and Jobs carried that message to the kingdom of the geek. "He just wanted to get that technical stuff out of the way," Wozniak said. "Look at the Macintosh. All of a sudden, instead of typing a command, you just reach up with your pointer and drag it somewhere. You didn't have to learn a lot of stuff. You didn't have to have a big manual. He stuck to that philosophy in every product."
It was a monk's philosophy, maybe, but it earned him the riches of a Midas. The earliest Apple models were blockbusters, as they say. Yet the Macintosh, though profitable, didn't quite perform up to expectations, and soon Jobs was pushed out the door.
"They ran him out," said Jeff Gamet, the managing editor of The Mac Observer. "Jobs flew a pirate flag over the Mac development building. He had this kind of renegade idea about how the company needed to run and what they needed to be doing with the hardware, and the executives and board of directors was looking at the company as, well, 'We have shareholders and obligations to the shareholder and we have to look at the profit margins all the time.' They didn't think they should be spending as much money as they were."
Wozniak remembered his friend's departure slightly differently: "I felt it was a little disloyal to Apple. He still had the freedom to stay at Apple and work on products. But he wanted to do other things. He left because he felt that in his heart he was meant to build great computers."
Jobs attempted to do that by starting a new company, NeXT, in 1985. And although it may be the rare MacBook user who can recall the NeXT machines in any detail, that company proved to be the staging ground for many of Apple's later successes. It was at NeXT that Jobs developed the operating system that would evolve into Apple's OS X. According to Gamet, the accessibility and elegance of the system held great appeal for Apple, which had floundered in Jobs' absence.
"I think it's safe to say that Apple's position at the time was dire," Gamet said. "They were losing money, they had a very convoluted product line-up, and they were charging too much for the Macs that they were selling at the time, and they were also suffering from public image problems.
"Every week a new rumor was coming out about who was going to buy Apple. Sometimes it was Disney, sometimes it was an oil company, and of course the week I heard the rumor that Dunkin' Donuts was going to buy Apple -- which of course was a totally bogus rumor, but people really believed it -- I thought, yeah, this company's really in trouble."
Apple bought NeXT in 1997, Jobs took a consultant job with his old company and by the dawn of the next millennium, he was the permanent CEO. And it was at this point that the company embarked on the run of technological and commercial breakthroughs that yielded the iPod, iPhone and iPad, and which continues to this day.
Leander Kahney, the author of the blog cultofmac.com, recently ran off a list of some of those accomplishments before apparently running out of steam: "The iPod and the iPhone and the iPad the iTunes and the Mac stores, he popularized wireless networking, he popularized WiFi, USB flat-screen monitors...The list goes on and on."
For someone steeped in Buddhist teachings, Jobs' management style wasn't exactly placid. "Everybody’s got a Steve-Jobs-scream-to-my-face story," Kahney said. "Nose-to-nose, spittle coming out of his mouth." But that style may be one of the keys to the company's strength, he said. "He’s kind of weeded out people who can’t take that. A lot of the people he works with go toe to toe with him, and these are the people he wants."
In 2004, Jobs announced that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and in the years since, his illness has at times disrupted his work, necessitating a series of medical leaves.
So when he said he was stepping down Wednesday, people worried. "Deep inside I had a little bit of a scared reaction that maybe something was wrong," Wozniak said. Still, "everybody has to a reach a point where they need to retire or take an easier position in the company," he said. Yes: even Jobs.
There are worries, too, for the health of Apple -- for how it may fare three or four years from now, when Jobs' fingerprints have begun to fade. Trip Chowdry, a director at Global Equity Research, said he wasn’t betting on the company's long-term success.
"Success in the consumer space is not dictated by getting your product 80 percent right, 90 percent right, or 97 percent right," he said. "The success is defined by the last 2 percent of the product, and I don't think there's any other individual on the planet who has the kind of intuition Steve Jobs has to make sure they get the last 2 percent right. Apple stood out for one reason and one reason only: Steve Jobs."
So there it is. Steve Jobs and Apple have parted, and only time will tell how the company will do without him. In the meantime, his fans and worshippers can perhaps take some hope from an interview he gave to Rolling Stone in 1994, three years before he came back to Apple and raised it from the dead.
"Some people have compared you to Orson Welles," said the interviewer, "who at 25 did his best work, and it's all downhill from there."
"I'm very flattered by that, actually," Jobs replied.
"The Macintosh was sort of like this wonderful romance in your life that you once had – and that produced about 10 million children," Jobs added. "In a way it will never be over in your life."