Steve Jobs' indelible mark on the computer industry

There's unlikely to be another visionary like him

Steve Jobs had unparalleled foresight and the will to make his ideas come to life. Will there ever be another visionary who has anything close to the impact that Apple's co-founder had on consumer technologies?

In recent years, the company's sphere of influence expanded by millions of users worldwide, confirming Jobs' vision after years of Apple being marginalized by weak market share.

Drawing from some of the most pivotal points in his life, Steve Jobs, then-CEO and co-founder of Apple and of Pixar Animation Studios, urged graduates to pursue their dreams and see the opportunities in life's setbacks -- including death itself -- at the university's 114th Commencement on June 12, 2005.

Ultimately, Jobs' stubbornly held convictions about how people should use computers and other devices won out against his many competitors and critics. The Macintosh, OS X, iPod, iPhone and iPad are all success stories. And under Jobs' leadership, Apple seemed to get better and better at combining his vision with economic success.

It isn't just end users who have embraced Apple; Wall Street has too. Based on market cap, Apple's valuation has surpassed every other tech company in the U.S. In fact, it has been playing a game of tag with oil giant ExxonMobil for the title of highest-valued company in the U.S. No matter what you think of the company's products, you have to tip your hat to Apple's financial might.

Steve Jobs died at the highest point (so far) of his company's success.

But what does the future really hold? Did Jobs leave behind a company now lacking the critical vision that was instrumental to its success -- a company that will be crippled by his death? Or was Jobs the truly superb CEO that many believe him to have been? Did he plan for succession and bring key members of his staff along to carry the torch for him after his departure?

We're about to find out.

I hope for the sake of Apple's employees, shareholders and millions of customers that Jobs was able to rein in his ego -- that piece of him that was probably requisite to sticking to his guns on product design and functionality -- just enough to do everything he could to make Apple continue on course without him. The man had eight years to come to terms with his impending death and do what needed to be done. Just look at Tim Cook's quick transition to CEO in August. For now, I'm giving Apple the benefit of the doubt.

In recent weeks, I've heard many people speculate that Jobs must have left two or three years of products in the pipeline. They wonder what he had coming, but the implication is that once those Jobs-inspired goodies have been introduced, it's all over. While that's meant to sound laudatory, in a way it sells Jobs' real abilities short.

As great a product visionary as Jobs was, he didn't do it all alone. He created a framework of user-focused innovation. He fostered an environment of product design and manufacturing excellence. Most of all, he sought control of the user experience in every possible way to ensure that that experience was positive. Don't for a second think that now that Jobs is gone, that's it, Apple is done. And don't buy into the cynicism that Jobs was the last tech entrepreneur who could innovate. His passing is in some ways an opportunity for other entrepreneurs and product visionaries to make their mark.

In one way, Jobs' passing is the end of the era that saw the computer industry's meteoric rise. In another way, it's the fitting end to a fairy-tale story of a man who had both soaring highs and deep lows. In short, Jobs' professional life had an American-dream, truth-is-stranger-than-fiction quality about it. Even if you weren't an Apple fan or didn't like the man, you probably found yourself rooting for him. After all, for decades he was the underdog, and he proved them all wrong in the end.

Apple announces Steve Jobs' passing's homepage announced the news on Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2011, around 8:30 PM EDT.

Scot Finnie is Computerworld's editor in chief. Follow Scot on Twitter at @scotfinnie or subscribe to his RSS feeds:
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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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