Steven P. Jobs, the visionary co-founder of Apple who helped usher in the era of personal computers and then did nothing less than lead a cultural transformation in the way music, movies and mobile communications were experienced in the digital age, died Wednesday in Palo Alto, Calif.. He was 56.
The death was announced by Apple, the company Mr. Jobs and his high school friend Stephen Wozniak started in 1976 in a suburban California garage.
Mr. Jobs had waged a long and public struggle with cancer, remaining the face of the company even as he underwent treatment, introducing new products for a global market in his trademark blue jeans even as he grew gaunt and frail.
He underwent surgery for pancreatic cancer in 2004, received a liver transplant in 2009 and took three medical leaves of absence as Apple’s chief executive before stepping down in August and turning over the helm to Timothy D. Cook, the chief operating officer. When he left, he had still been engaged in the company’s affairs, negotiating with another Silicon Valley executive only weeks earlier.
“I have always said that if there ever came a day when I could no longer meet my duties and expectations as Apple’s C.E.O., I would be the first to let you know,” Mr. Jobs said in a letter released by the company. “Unfortunately, that day has come.”
By then, having mastered digital technology and capitalized on his intuitive marketing sense, Mr. Jobs had largely come to define the personal computer industry and an array of digital consumer and entertainment businesses centered on the Internet. He had also become a very rich man, worth an estimated $8.3 billion.
Eight years after founding Apple, Mr. Jobs led the team that designed the Macintosh computer, a breakthrough in making personal computers easier to use. After a 12-year separation from the company, prompted by a bitter falling-out with his chief executive, John Sculley, he returned in 1997 to oversee the creation of one innovative digital device after another — the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad. They transformed not only product categories like music players and cellphones but also entire industries, like music and mobile communications.
During his years outside Apple, he bought a tiny computer graphics spinoff from the director George Lucas and built a team of computer scientists, artists and animators that became Pixar Animation Studios. Starting with “Toy Story” in 1995, Pixar produced a string of hit movies, won several Academy Awards for both artistic and technological excellence, and made the full-length computer-animated film a mainstream art form enjoyed by children and adults worldwide.
Mr. Jobs was neither a hardware engineer nor a software programmer, nor did he think of himself as a manager. He considered himself a technology leader, choosing the best people possible, encouraging and prodding them, and making the final call on product design.
It was an executive style that had evolved. In his early years at Apple, his meddling in tiny details maddened colleagues, and his criticism could be caustic and even humiliating. But he grew to elicit extraordinary loyalty.
“He was the most passionate leader one could hope for, a motivating force without parallel,” wrote Steven Levy, author of the 1994 book “Insanely Great,” which chronicles the creation of the Macintosh. “Tom Sawyer could have picked up tricks from Steve Jobs.”
“Toy Story,” for example, took four years to make while Pixar struggled, yet Mr. Jobs never let up on his colleagues. “‘You need a lot more than vision — you need a stubbornness, tenacity, belief and patience to stay the course,” said Edwin Catmull, a computer scientist and a co-founder of Pixar. “In Steve’s case, he pushes right to the edge, to try to make the next big step forward.”
Mr. Jobs was the ultimate arbiter of Apple products, and his standards were exacting. Over the course of a year he tossed out two iPhone prototypes, for example, before approving the third, and begin shipping it in June 2007.
To his understanding of technology he brought an immersion in popular culture. In his 20s, he dated Joan Baez; Ella Fitzgerald sang at his 30th birthday party. His worldview was shaped by the ‘60s counterculture in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he had grown up, the adopted son of a Silicon Valley machinist. When he graduated from high school in Los Altos in 1972, he said, ”the very strong scent of the 1960s was still there.”
After dropping out of Reed College, a stronghold of liberal thought in Portland, Ore., in 1972, Mr. Jobs led a countercultural lifestyle himself. He told a reporter that taking LSD was one of the two or three most important things he had done in his life. He said there were things about him that people who had not tried psychedelics — even people who knew him well, including his wife — could never understand.
Decades later he flew around the world in his own corporate jet, but he maintained emotional ties to the period in which he grew up. He often felt like an outsider in the corporate world, he said. When discussing the Silicon Valley’s lasting contributions to humanity, he mentioned in the same breath the invention of the microchip and “The Whole Earth Catalog,” a 1960s counterculture publication.
Apple’s very name reflected his unconventionality. In an era when engineers and hobbyists tended to describe their machines with model numbers, he chose the name of a fruit, supposedly because of his dietary habits at the time.
Coming on the scene just as computing began to move beyond the walls of research laboratories and corporations in the 1970s, Mr. Jobs saw that computing was becoming personal — that it could do more than crunch numbers and solve scientific and business problems — and that it could even be a force for social and economic change. And at a time when hobbyist computers were boxy wooden affairs with metal chassis, he designed the Apple II as a sleek, low-slung plastic package intended for the den or the kitchen. He was offering not just products but a digital lifestyle.
He put much stock in the notion of “taste,” a word he used frequently. It was a sensibility that shone in products that looked like works of art and delighted users. Great products, he said, were a triumph of taste, of “trying to expose yourself to the best things humans have done and then trying to bring those things into what you are doing.”
Regis McKenna, a veteran Silicon Valley marketing executive to whom Mr. Jobs turned in the late 1970s to help shape the Apple brand, said Mr. Jobs’s genius lay in his ability to simplify complex, highly engineered products, “to strip away the excess layers of business, design and innovation until only the simple, elegant reality remained.”
Mr. Jobs’s own research and intuition, not focus groups, were his guide. When asked what market research went into the iPad, Mr. Jobs replied: “None. It’s not the consumers’ job to know what they want.”