Steve Jobs embodied a myth that is almost unique to America.
Except for a fascination, almost an obsession, with computers and gadgets, he was as a young man what would be called a slacker. He dropped out of college after six months: “I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out.”
What Jobs and fellow dropout Steve Wozniak did have was an idea, and Jobs, it turned out, had a gift for perfecting ideas. They retired to the garage of his adoptive parents, and after a year of tinkering, emerged into the California sunlight with a device that would change the world, the Apple II.
Jobs and Wozniak quickly realized what other computer makers did not. Computer nerds, who enjoyed fiddling with unnecessarily complicated devices, were a limited market. The future lay in devices that ordinary people could easily master — to make calls, exchange photos, talk to friends, listen to music and surf the Net, all with a minimum of gimmickry.
The Macintosh laptop was an almost-instant success. The iPod and the iTunes Store almost inadvertently revolutionized the music business, and not, in the opinion of some industry executives, for the better.
It is almost inevitable that great success will make a cutting-edge tech company that grew up on informality, collegiality and creativity decide one day that it should become a Real Business, run by serious white males in suits.
Jobs brought in the CEO from Pepsi, who installed a like-minded board that eventually pushed Jobs out of the company. Jobs was not idle during those years in the wilderness. He bought Pixar, an animation studio, for $10 million and sold it to Disney for $7.4 billion.
Meanwhile, Apple was floundering, its stock in the single digits, and Jobs had what must have been the intense personal satisfaction of being begged to come back and save the company. Which he did, building it into a $350 billion enterprise with a stream of new products starting with the iMac, introduced by Jobs in a showy one-man performance that debuted a new standard of corporate dress — jeans and a black T-shirt.
Like many genius entrepreneurs, Jobs had his unpleasant side. He had a temper and, for two years, denied the paternity of his daughter, Lisa, by a longtime girlfriend. And when the woman who would become his wife became pregnant, Jobs refused to marry her.
Jobs left legions of Apple fans bereft, wondering what else he might have invented, reinvented or simply perfected before he lost a long-running battle Wednesday with pancreatic cancer. He was only 56.
Jobs was anything but the man in the gray flannel suit, but nonetheless he briefly grasped the holy grail of business: He invented a need and then filled it before his customers and rivals realized how badly they wanted — and needed — what he was selling.