Entire books have already been written on the contributions Steve Jobs has made to Apple, the company he helped found 35 years ago. In many ways, the most significant ones took place after 1997, when he returned to Apple from exile and set about to change not just the company but entire industries.
That he did so is testament to the prominent role he has played in shaping our digital lives. And his decision to step aside as Apple CEO, while not a complete surprise given his health issues, nonetheless sent a shudder through the IT landscape when it was announced late Wednesday.
To understand what Jobs has meant to the company, it's important to look back at where Apple was 15 years ago.
The Mac product line in the mid-1990s was labyrinthine, with dozens of models across four vague categories (home, school, work and portable), a series of proprietary ports that flouted standardization and a growing retinue of Mac clones aimed at expanding Apple's markets.
Alongside the hardware confusion were the efforts to create a modern Mac operating system -- a long saga that involved numerous internal projects and joint efforts with other companies that evolved into an initiative called Copland. It never got beyond a very early developer preview and was eventually shelved.
In short, Apple was a mess in 1996. There was even a Web campaign to get Apple fans to buy a few shares of the company to show Wall Street that Apple was still relevant.
Of all the crises at Apple, the biggest was the need for a modern OS that the company could build around -- one that would be able to survive and thrive in the new millennium. Using a technique that has since become common in Silicon Valley, Apple looked for a company with an existing modern operating system onto which the Mac user interface and features could be grafted.
At first, the general consensus was that Apple would acquire a company called Be. Led by former Apple exec Jean-Louise Gasse, Be was developing its own computing platform, called BeOS, and hardware known as Be Boxes.
Instead, Apple bought NeXT, the computing company that Jobs founded after being fired by Apple in 1986.
Soon thereafter, Jobs pulled off a masterful coup, convincing Apple's board to request Gil Amelio's resignation as CEO. Thus began his tenure as interim CEO (or iCEO as he put it), a position that eventually became permanent.
If you had told me 14 years ago when I was reporting on Apple's change in leadership that the company would eventually have a market cap that topped Exxon Mobil's -- making it the most valuable company in the U.S. (and exceeding Microsoft and Intel combined) -- or that it would have more cash on hand than the United States itself, I'd have called you crazy. And yet that happened under Jobs' leadership.
Paring things down to their core
Jobs changed the course of Apple by simplifying things. This has often been described as a hallmark of his leadership and the design aesthetic that he and Jonathan Ives crafted for the company, and it is possibly his biggest accomplishment.
In less than a year, he ended the Mac clone era and distilled Apple's product matrix into a four-box grid of computers: pro desktop, pro notebook, consumer desktop and consumer notebook (still unreleased at the time). He not only cleared away confusion, he streamlined Apple's hardware development teams to their bare essentials, training the brainpower of Apple engineers to achieve the best from essentially just four systems.
Focus was needed, too. Apple at the time was a bureaucratic mass filled with competing fiefdoms and managers. Jobs put an end to the feuds and took an unheard-of level of interest in the details of product development. That degree of upper-management involvement still exists at Apple and is now part of the company's DNA.
By doing so, he made Apple more agile than other big companies, giving it a flexibility comparable to that of a startup. That enabled Apple to change course quickly in response to changes in technology, markets, users or the world in general.
1998: The iMac and Apple's future
In addition to simplifying Apple's hardware strategy, Jobs made a couple of significant announcements not long after his return: He unveiled the original iMac and he outlined the operating system development road map that would lead to Mac OS X.
The original iMac featured a revolutionary new design. It returned to the Mac's all-in-one roots, and it looked neither boring nor intimidating. Like all of the other products that Apple has introduced under Jobs, it was stripped of everything but the necessities; Apple highlighted how easy it was to connect to the Internet with its "There's No Step Three" ad campaign. Gone was the floppy drive, which was seen at the time as a strange omission.
The original iMac was also the first Mac to be built without proprietary interfaces. It shipped with USB ports, meaning previous Mac accessories wouldn't work without adapters. But it also aligned Apple hardware with the rest of the computer industry, chipping away at Mac's reputation as being incompatible with everything else. In fact, the iMac helped push USB in an industry that wasn't quite ready to adopt it, a tactic Apple still uses.
The other important announcement was Apple's plan to merge NeXT's Unix-based operating system with the classic Mac OS. The original concept, called Rhapsody, was repeatedly described as having different colored "boxes" for running different types of apps. Rhapsody really came down to just a yellow box (apps coded for the new OS and its capabilities) and a blue box (for legacy apps).
Naming the new operating system Mac OS X -- Apple had Mac OS 9 as an intermediate release to put out -- helped ground the upcoming OS. So did taking the highly conceptual Rhapsody "boxes" and turning them into software that became Mac OS X and Mac "Classic." Jobs' leadership was crucial in crafting a strategy to merge two very different operating systems, creating a transition developers could use to build software that ran in both environments, presenting a simple interface plan users and developers could accept, and selling an OS concept filled with a lot of change and risk.
Mac OS X arrived as a preview beta in 2000; the latest iteration, OS X 10.7 "Lion," was released last month.
Mac OS X and Apple's new hardware line laid strong foundations for the company, much stronger than was apparent at the time. While nearly everyone saw potential in Mac OS X, no one who used the public beta knew it would eventually evolve to power smartphones and tablets. And no one knew that Apple was secretly maintaining an x86 version for Macs based on Intel processors, presaging Apple's later shift to Intel chips.
That hidden potential and secret project illustrated two other Jobsian traits that have also become part of Apple's corporate culture: recognizing untapped possibilities and markets and keeping a tight lid on what the company is working on.
Indeed, Apple's penchant for secrecy is now legendary. But that strategy has allowed the company to generate a torrent of buzz around even the smallest possibility of an announcement. Few companies, organizations or even governments can match Apple's capacity to operate covertly and manipulate the media.
With Apple's core product lines steadied and growing, the beginning of the new century led to some new, surprising and ultimately very lucrative expansions of the company's horizons.
In 2001, Apple literally broke new ground when it opened the first of its retail stores. The stores now number in the hundreds and seem like they've always been part of the Apple experience. But at the time they were uncharted territory for the company, necessary to address the long-standing problem of Apple products being carried in retail outlets that catered almost exclusively to Windows PCs, office equipment or home electronics. Most of all, they offered Apple direct access to its customers in a way few companies could match.
2001: The iPod
The biggest Apple project of 2001 was the iPod, which showcased everything best about Steve Jobs. It picked up on a new, but untapped, technology trend: the arrival of the MP3 player. Apple transformed the ungainly and complex devices of the day by paring the concept back to its most basic features. The iPod made everything easy, from setup and sync via iTunes to playback -- wrapping everything up in a sleek white package. As with other Apple products, the iPod launched to good reviews and carried a hefty price tag. Critics promptly proclaimed the Mac-only iPod a high-priced niche device.
The iPod succeeded beyond anything else Apple produced until the iPhone and the iPad arrived in 2007 and 2010, respectively. As the iPod and iTunes became available for Windows users, the iTunes Store was launched and the iPod's capacities and price points were diversified, it became clear that all the key pieces had been planned well before Apple even announced the original iPod.
If Jobs' legacy had ended with the Apple turnaround and the creation of a music revolution with the iPod, it would've been pretty amazing. But Apple was just getting started.
The iTunes Store wasn't just about music for long. In 2005, Apple expanded iTunes to include much of what we know today: sales of digital video and apps. The initial experience was far from iPad-like. Apps were nothing more than a handful of games that could be played on the fifth-generation iPod, the first to support video.
Video on a 2.5-in. screen wasn't much to get excited about. But the latest iPod wasn't the only device beyond the computer that Apple announced that year (though it was the only one that it shipped). The company also announced the first-generation Apple TV -- initially dubbed iTV -- at the same time, calling it a "hobby."
2007: The iPhone
No one was talking about Apple's new "hobby" in January 2007. The iPhone was the story. The iPhone was notable not just because it was Apple's first mobile phone (something that had been long rumored), but also because it featured the sleekest form factor of any tech product ever produced. The iPhone was certainly not the first smartphone, and it wasn't the first to have some type of touch interface. But it was the first smartphone that made a touch interface that was almost instantly intuitive and that completely shunned the use of a stylus.
Once again, from the form factor to the interface, the Jobs and Ives design austerity worked wonders.
The iPhone was easily the most gorgeous gadget on the planet in 2007. It revolutionized the concept of browsing the Web on a mobile device. It became a completely new kind of portable media player. It was instantly attractive and it really solidified the concept of iTunes as a multimedia store.
It was not, however, perfect or an instant success. It only worked on a single U.S. carrier's network. It offered no GPS capabilities, its mobile data performance was slower than that of virtually every other smartphone, and it had no way for users to install additional software. It was also expensive -- customers who wanted an iPhone had to sign up for a service contract, but there were no subsidized pricing options for them to take advantage of.
But, like the original iPod, the iPhone was the beginning of a hardware line that Apple, with Jobs at the helm, had considered and planned well in advance.
Less than a year later, Apple announced the App Store and invited developers to begin writing iPhone applications. The iPhone 3G made up for the original model's hardware and network shortcomings, and Apple launched it worldwide -- along with a suite of data sync services known as Mobile Me. Like the successive generations of iPods, the iPhone 3G was a success -- so much of a success that Apple and mobile carriers were overwhelmed by customer demand and were unable to activate all the iPhones purchased on launch day.
Under Jobs' exacting leadership, Apple pioneered many things with the iPhone that are today considered standard elements of mobile platforms: the all-touchscreen interface with an on-screen keyboard, the use of an on-device app store that offers one-click installation, a browser that supports content beyond specifically mobile-optimized sites, and the use of a mobile phone as a media player and gaming device.
Whether your phone is an iPhone, a touchscreen BlackBerry, an Android device or a Windows Phone handset -- much of its design and functionality is derived from the iPhone and Apple's efforts to pare back the smartphone interface to its very basics.
That isn't to say other companies and platforms haven't expanded on those beginnings or that Apple's iOS is the perfect mobile operating system. But it's what got the revolution of the smartphone going.
2010: It's the iPad
The iPad, unveiled in January 2010, will likely go down as Steve Jobs' final creative act. And what an act it has been.
Ironically, the iPad in development actually led Apple to create and launch the iPhone first. And just as the iPhone changed the concept of what a smartphone could be, the iPad took the concept of a tablet computer -- something Microsoft and other companies had been trying to market for a decade with limited success -- and transformed it. With the iPad, more than any other product, Jobs' penchant for minimalism resulted in a completely new concept of what a given piece of hardware could be.
By focusing on making the hardware and the device almost disappear, Apple created a user experience that feels more intuitive -- whether you're a toddler or a tech expert -- than that of just about any piece of modern technology. You pick up the iPad, slide your finger, tap the screen and you pretty much know how to use it right away. And that gives developers an incredible blank canvas to create on.
The iPad has transformed how we interact with the data that makes up our world. It takes a torrent of information -- contacts, appointments, news, emails, text, photos, music, video, games, meetings -- and lets us touch them in a way that is both familiar and new.
The simplicity of the iPad, which is all about what people can do with it and not about hardware or specs or ports or the ability to modify it, is a major reason for its success. Apple's ability to communicate that very simple and human experience is a big part of why other tablet makers haven't yet come close to catching up to the iPad. Looking back on all the innovations Jobs has overseen at Apple, the iPad may be his greatest success story.
How Apple goes on
In 1997, Steve Jobs took the reins of a very dysfunctional company that probably would have imploded if he hadn't come back. I doubt any of the changes he made to Apple's management and culture came easily and, given all the stories of how demanding he can be, I doubt anyone who worked to remake Apple in his vision would call it an easy or stress-free job. But the company's transformation (and through its products and impact, the digital world as we know it) has been astounding to watch.
Looking at Apple's executive staff and the Apple employees I've worked with over the years, I have no doubt that the company will continue to do great things for many years. It seems clear that the core values and skills that made Jobs an excellent leader at Apple -- the passion for exacting excellence, a determination that products should just work, a dedication to solution being as minimalist as possible, a vision of the intersection of technology and everyday life, an understanding that Apple is creating human experiences and interactions from the store and packaging to the hardware and software and everything in between -- have become part of the company's ethos and psyche.
Jobs has stepped aside; his mission continues.
Ryan Faas is a freelance writer and technology consultant specializing in Mac and multiplatform network issues. He has been a Computerworld columnist since 2003 and is a frequent contributor to Peachpit.com. Faas is also the author of iPhone for Work (Apress, 2009). You can find out more about him at RyanFaas.com and follow him on Twitter (@ryanfaas).