A college dropout turned visionary, the apple computer founder taught the world to think differently about music, movies, work and life

By Jill Smolowe
October 24, 2011 12:00 PM

NOT LONG AFTER HE ANNOUNCED HIS DIAGNOSIS OF PANCREATIC CANCER IN 2004, STEVE JOBS HAD A TRAMPOLINE INSTALLED IN THE BACKYARD OF HIS HOME in California’s Silicon Valley. While two workers assembled the frame and rigged a net, Jobs stood by and analyzed the trampoline’s design. Even after they were finished and Jobs hopped on for a tryout, he couldn’t help talking about how he would make it better. “He was jumping up and down with a big smile on his face, and when he got off, he told us some ways to improve the netting,” says K.C. Bradshaw, who helped with the installation. “He was talking about how he’d simplify the structure or hang the net this way. He just really wanted to improve it, like this need to make the best product was in his DNA.”

That vision and perfectionism helped make Jobs perhaps the most influential inventor of the digital age. “He’s been compared to Einstein and Edison, but he really should be compared to Picasso,” says architect Michael Graves. “There are people who change the art form they are working in.” Time and again, Jobs shattered competitors’ preconceptions of what technology could do and what the public wanted it to do-first with the groundbreaking Apple and Mac computers, next with animated films from Pixar studios, then in rapid succession with the sleekly irresistible iPod, then the iPhone and, most recently, the iPad. “In a world littered with dull objects, he brought the beauty of clean lines and clear thought,” says his friend Bono, who met Jobs through their (RED) HIV-AIDS charity work. “He changed music. He changed film. He changed the personal computer and turned telephony on its head while he was at it. He was tenacious in the extreme, his toughness never more evident than these past few years in his fight for his life.”

Mortality, in the form of pancreatic cancer, proved to be the one challenge he could not conquer, though he fought hard. After rebounding from cancer treatment, then undergoing a liver transplant, he stayed in the top job at Apple until August. Jobs died on Oct. 5 at age 56 at his home in Palo Alto, Calif., surrounded by his wife, Laurene, and their three children.

An intensely private man who made time for little beyond his work and his family, Jobs had a devotion to Apple that was so great, he became, in a way, its most iconic creation, from his trademark black turtleneck and blue jeans to his Zen-like product launches that made him geekdom’s top rock star. Even as his health deteriorated, he remained keenly attentive to the design of Apple’s new headquarters in Cupertino. “He encouraged us to develop new ways of looking at design to reflect his unique ability to weave backward and forward between grand strategy and the minutiae of the tiniest internal fittings,” says the headquarters’ architect Norman Foster. “He delved into its fine print.”

It is how he always worked, recalled former RIAA head Hilary Rosen, who consulted on the launch of Apple’s on-line music store. “The engineer was walking us through the latest version of the iTunes Store, and Steve said, ‘Let’s move this a few inches, make that green.’ It was sort of magical the way he just would look at the smallest detail and make the picture better.”

Along the road to defining consumer technology in the 21st century, Jobs turned Apple, the company he cofounded, into one of the world’s most profitable businesses. When he died, his fortune was estimated at $8.3 billion, but intimates say he neither coveted nor hoarded it. “Steve did a lot of charitable work, but he liked to do things anonymously,” says longtime friend Dr. Dean Ornish. “He supported his wife Laurene’s charities, like College Track for disadvantaged kids to get college degrees. He didn’t want credit for doing things. What was important was doing the work.”

Yet even as Jobs’s relentless creativity and extraordinary resilience kept his focus on the future, he became increasingly aware that an end was inevitable. “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life,” he told Stanford’s graduating class in 2005. “There is no reason not to follow your heart.” During his final three years, his heart brought him home to Laurene, his wife of 20 years, and their children, Reed, 20, Erin, 16, and Eve, 13. Jobs also had a daughter, Lisa, 33, from an earlier relationship with painter Chrisann Brennan. “Steve was very dedicated to his family,” says actor Tim Allen, who voiced Buzz for the Toy Story movies and became an e-mail pal. At their seven-bedroom red-brick home in Palo Alto, Jobs indulged his love of movies and TV (House being his favorite) and listened to LPs on the turntable in his bedroom, a nod to his love of tech that predates MP3 players and CDs. “About 10 years ago he told me that becoming a dad is ‘10,000 times better than anything I’ve ever done,'” says Ornish. “Steve told me, ‘Once you have a child, your heart is forever outside your body because you are more open and sensitive to things.'”

That sensitivity at home did not extend readily to his colleagues. Though he “waited in line in the cafeteria along with everybody else,” says a former Apple executive who asked not be named, “he wasn’t a particularly approachable person.” To those who pleased him with an idea, he handed out Porsche Design watches; to those who didn’t, he could give humiliating reviews in group settings. “There wasn’t any room to fail or not deliver,” says the exec. “He was like the parent you would keep doing stuff for, but it was never going to be good enough.” Jay Elliot, a former senior vice president at Apple, agrees that with Jobs “there was never any doubt about what Steve wanted.” But Elliot offers a different take on his leadership skills. “In a symphony orchestra, they have sheet music and the orchestra leader sticks to that,” he says. “But a jazz bandleader is different. It’s ‘Okay, here’s a key and here’s a beat. All the open areas you fill in.’ Steve was that kind of artist. It was all about motivating.”

Born in 1955, Steve was adopted soon after birth by Paul and Clara Jobs (both now deceased) and grew up in California’s nascent Silicon Valley. Paul, a machinist who never graduated high school and loved to tinker with mechanical things, encouraged Steve’s fascination with electronics; Clara, a bookkeeper, taught him to read at an early age, a gift that left him so unchallenged in school that he turned into a self-described “little terror,” sneaking snakes into class. It didn’t make him popular. “We were both introverted, thoughtful people,” says boyhood pal Bill Fernandez, Apple’s first employee. “We didn’t fit into the more common social groups, so we found ourselves to be loners. We would walk and talk about the questions we had: ‘What is the meaning of life? What are we here for? Where do girls fit in to all that?’ Normal things adolescent boys had on their mind, with maybe a more cerebral mix.”

Jobs next applied to Reed College, an elite private school in Portland, Ore., that his parents could not afford. By the time college officials figured out that no one was paying the bills, Jobs had so entrenched himself that administrators let him stay on-for free. Jobs stuck around for 18 months for the education-notably, a calligraphy course that would later inform the design and variety of the typefaces that came on a Macintosh-but did not bother to finish a degree. Instead, hungering for travel, he took a job at a tiny California start-up called Atari, eventually saving enough money to spend three weeks in India, where he indulged his interest in Eastern mysticism. “He was a bit of an oddball back then,” says Gregory Calhoun, an old Reed College pal. “I remember how we used to drive to this little health food store in Santa Cruz and buy 25-lb. crates of figs and dates. Steve had his day job at Atari, he was practicing Zen, and he was building the first Apple computer.” In a testimony to his experimental side, he was also dropping acid.

It was in 1976 that Jobs and pal Steve Wozniak, with whom he shared a passion for Bob Dylan, and one other friend founded Apple. They fixed their sights on developing a home computer that could be used by consumers who were not technologically savvy. That year they rolled out the Apple I. By 23, Jobs was a millionaire.

With success came a heightened indifference to others’ rules and feelings. Says Bob Belleville, a senior engineer at Apple at the time: “He had a great deal of natural confidence.” Soon that confidence was turned in the direction of developing a personal computer that, through the introduction of a mouse, could do away with user commands. “He wanted to call the original Macintosh ‘Bicycle,'” says Belleville. “A bicycle, he felt, was the most efficient device that coupled human energy to motion, and the Mac coupled human creativity to the human world. We stuck with Macintosh.”

In 1985, the fledgling Mac not yet a success despite its eye-popping debut in a 1984 Super Bowl commercial directed by Ridley Scott, Apple ousted Jobs as its market share dwindled during an industry-wide slump. Bruised, Jobs launched the computer concern NeXT and bought Pixar, a computer-graphics unit owned by Lucasfilm. While NeXT was never profitable (though Apple later bought it for $400 million), Pixar produced Toy Story. Its wild success in 1995, along with Jobs’s decision to take Pixar public, prompted Apple to woo him back.

In 1997 he returned triumphant and, some felt, more autocratic than ever. Rick Smolan, whose Day in the Life photo books had received backing from Jobs in the 1980s, recalls friends who worked for Jobs who “were afraid to get into the elevator with him.” Still, he says, “there were two Steve Jobs.” The one who got thrown out of his own company was “brash, stubborn, pig-headed.” The one who returned “grew up a lot. The new Apple was built by a mature person who built a team.”

His personal life also evolved. Curious about his birth parents since he was a teen, he learned years later that they had been unwed grad students who subsequently married and had a second child, author Mona Simpson. At the time the biological siblings met, Simpson was at work on her first novel, which became the 1987 bestseller Anywhere but Here and is dedicated to her mother “and my brother Steve.” Nine years later Simpson published A Regular Guy, a stinging novel that depicts a Silicon Valley tycoon’s troubled relationship with his illegitimate daughter. Jobs himself conceived his first daughter, Lisa, out of wedlock with his high school girlfriend Chrisann Brennan, then for years denied paternity and refused support (though he allegedly named the Lisa computer for her). During Lisa’s teen years, the father-daughter bond grew so strong that she moved in with Jobs. In later years, says a person who knew Jobs well, they had an “off-and-on” relationship.

In 1991 Jobs stopped dating high-profile women-among them Joan Baez-after meeting Laurene Powell, a Stanford MBA who shared his unrigid vegetarian habits and counterculture interests. That year they married in a Zen Buddhist ceremony, then settled into family life. Jobs routinely “had dinner at home at the kitchen table with his family … and went to recitals and horse shows and school events,” says a Jobs intimate. “He kept his kids out of the public eye.”

Lack of ostentation was a way of life. No summer homes, no fancy clothes, no chauffeurs or live-in domestic help. Come Halloween, Jobs could be found along the walkway, sometimes in Frankenstein regalia, handing out cartons of organic apple juice and apple-shaped chocolates. For vacation time, one of their favorite getaways was a resort in Hawaii that has neither phones nor electricity. “His children are the least spoiled people you’ll ever meet,” says a family friend. “They have a graceful reserve.”

As for his relationship with Laurene, they were regularly spotted strolling their street hand in hand until very close to the end. “It was one long, happy marriage for them,” says the family friend. Together they cultivated a large organic vegetable garden and a fruit orchard. “She’s like Steve-when they both do something, they do it in a big way,” says California Lieut. Gov. Gavin Newsom. “They are a remarkable family, and their legacy extends beyond business to the community.”

And despite Jobs’s seeming need for perfection, his friend Ornish feels that Jobs would be content with his legacy. “I was at his house when the iPod came out,” says Ornish, “and he said, ‘It’s out there now, and there’s nothing more I can do at this point.’ He was uncompromising and did things his way, but he believed that, in the final analysis, you just had to let things go. He had a strong desire to live, but he was also at peace with what he had accomplished.”

As millions of people worldwide clutch his shiny creations-as much a part of their lives as shoes or glasses-his influence, it seems safe to predict, will endure for decades to come. “Put a dent in the universe,” he used to exhort his colleagues. Steve Jobs was the rare meteor who did just that.