1. Steve Jobs

Apple's iVisionary

Benjamin Wachenje
"Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works."

Co-founder, and former chairman and CEO, Apple
Born: Feb. 24, 1955, San Francisco; died: Oct. 5, 2011, Palo Alto, Calif.
Education: Reed College (dropped out)

As Bill Gates shaped the experience of using the personal computer that sat on our desks, so Steve Jobs fashioned the experience of using the one we now carry around. Gates redefined the way millions of people work. Jobs redefined the style in which they live and set a new expectation about the embedding of technology in daily life.

His creative genius revolutionized not just his industry and its products, but also everything from music and movies to smartphones. He provided a platform for others to create and distribute apps, bringing innovation and change to an even wider sphere. Apple's co-founder tops our anniversary list of the 25 most transformative leaders, icons and rebels of the past-quarter century. More than any other member of our group of extraordinary entrepreneurs and executives—all outstanding leaders—his vision spurred changes far beyond his industry and put an indelible stamp on the wider culture.

In 1977, Jobs and his friend, Steve Wozniak, both early microcomputer enthusiasts, launched the Apple II with its innovative color graphics, full qwerty keyboard and internal slots for expansion.

Wosniak was the technician and Jobs, who didn't code, became the salesman. But in the early 1980s Jobs spotted something no one else saw: the commercial potential for a mouse-driven graphical interface developed at Xerox PARC's research labs. It appeared on the Apple Lisa and, a year later, the first Macintosh, and was a vital part of what put Apple on a distinctly different road from other computer makers.

It was not a successful path initially. Apple's machines cost more than other PCs, used their own operating system instead of Microsoft's increasingly dominant MS-DOS and had fewer software applications written for them. Sales sagged. In 1983, Jobs enticed John Sculley from Pepsi to address the problems as Apple's CEO. But they clashed, and two years later Jobs was forced out of the company he had founded. He started NeXT, which built high-end computer workstations, and in 1986 bought Lucasfilm's computer graphics division, Pixar. He ran it until 2006, when the Walt Disney Co. bought it for $7.4 billion, making Jobs Disney's biggest shareholder.

In 1997, with Apple again flailing—this time over upgrading its OS—and on the verge of bankruptcy, CEO Gil Amelio turned to Jobs and the object-oriented OS he had developed at NeXT. Jobs came back to Apple to advise on the Mac OS X. Amelio left shortly after, and Jobs resumed the CEO post. He restored Apple to profitability in 1998.

The second coming of Jobs as CEO brought the iMac, iTunes, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad, as well as Apple retail stores, the iTunes store and its Apps store, each a connected facet of the future he had envisioned.

Jobs died in 2011 at the age of 56 after an eight-year battle with pancreatic cancer. His stunning series of inventions had changed the way people use technology to connect and communicate, and had made Apple the world's most valuable public company. Jobs left his widow, Laurene, a fortune that Bloomberg estimates at $13 billion.

Jobs was a charismatic and seductive leader, and often an arbitrary and impatient manager. His design guru, Jony Ive, has said that he never bothered to unpack when traveling with his boss because Jobs always found the hotel unacceptable. He was a perfectionist, equally obsessive about product quality and design, and fiercely protective of the Apple brand.

For all his driving desire to make the impossible possible and have Apple imagine the future first, Jobs never ignored the business imperative of making and delivering products.

"Real artists ship," he said. But his legacy is a rhetorical answer to the question Jobs asked Sculley when talking him into joining Apple: "Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want a chance to change the world?"

Steve Jobs: Lifelong highlights

  • Adopted at birth and raised by Paul and Clara Jobs, first in San Francisco then in Mountain View, Calif.
  • Biological brother of novelist Mona Simpson. Their parents were Syrian-born John Jandali and Swiss-American Joanne Carole Schieble, who met at the University of Wisconsin
  • Traveled in India for seven months in 1974 in search of spiritual enlightenment
  • Married Laurene Powell in Yosemite National Park in 1991 in a ceremony officiated by a Zen Buddhist monk
  • Launched the Macintosh with the iconic "1984" Super Bowl TV commercial
  • Influenced in his minimalist design ethic by the modernist architect Joseph Eichler and Braun industrial designer Dieter Rams.
  • Wore a long-sleeved Issey Miyake black turtleneck, blue jeans and sneakers as his daily uniform
  • Attributed his attention to the Mac's fonts to a calligraphy course he took in college
  • Described by Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell as "very often the smartest guy in the room, and he would let people know that"
  • Diagnosed with pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor in 2003; underwent a liver transplant in 2009
  • Took medical leave for most of 2011, resigning as Apple CEO in August of that year
  • Despite its past rivalry with Apple, Microsoft flew flags at half-staff when Jobs died
  • Buried at Alta Mesa Memorial Park, a nondenominational cemetery in Palo Alto

Read MoreFULL LIST: CNBC FIRST 25

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