Steve Jobs stamped his mark on more than 35 years of personal computing history, from the rudimentary but ground-breaking Apple II to the sleekness of the touch-screen iPad. In the process, he helped to instill new digital tastes in a generation and was instrumental in the reshaping of digital media and entertainment.

Hailed as a technology visionary, Jobs also represented a new phenomenon in the 1970s: the businessman as a pop culture hero, as recognisable and charismatic as a film star. Almost from the founding of Apple, at the age of only 21, he was propelled into the public eye as the maverick face of a liberating new technology culture.

Jobs was not an inventor in the classic sense and borrowed, bought or merely popularised many of the ideas most closely associated with his company’s success. But his genius at anticipating what millions of consumers would want next from their digital devices, and at shaping the conditions that would create feverish excitement for each successive Apple advance, were unparalleled.

Among these were the Apple II, the first practical personal computer with sales of 1m and the brainchild of Apple’s other, more technical co-founder, Steve Wozniak; the Apple Macintosh, which introduced screen pictures or icons to represent activities on a virtual desktop controlled by a mouse; and, later, a string of hits that included the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad.

Steven Paul Jobs was born in Los Altos, California, in 1955, the illegitimate child of a Syrian professor of political science and a US speech therapist. He was adopted by Paul and Clara Jobs, a hard-working couple of moderate means.

Though devoted to them, he always retained a sense of baffled anger that he had been rejected by his natural parents, according to friends. He was renowned among those who worked closely with him as an inspiring but difficult leader who could deflate subordinates who did not live up to his demanding standards with withering anger. A perfectionist when it came to his company’s products, Jobs insisted on having the final say over the technology, design and marketing of everything that was stamped with the Apple name.

His journey to the top of the computing industry began when he was in high school, working for the summer at Hewlett-Packard, where he met Wozniak, who was working as an engineer.

Jobs later dropped out of Reed College, Oregon, and in 1974 went to India in search of spiritual enlightenment. He once said that his rival, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, would have benefited from similar experiences. Jobs retained the 1960s bohemian spirit throughout his life, usually dressing in the “artist’s’” uniform of black turtleneck sweater and jeans.

Back home, he and Wozniak designed a simple computer, the Apple I, in Jobs' bedroom. They sold the machine for $666 and took in $774,000 in sales. That was followed, in 1977, by the Apple II, which was aimed at ordinary consumers rather than just hobbyists and featured circuitry for connections to a colour monitor, a dramatic innovation at the time.

The success of the Apple II made Jobs a rich man. When Apple went public in 1980, its market value hit more than $1bn. In 1983, however, IBM – at the time the world's largest computer manufacturer – introduced its own personal computer. The IBM brand legitimised the PC in the business marketplace and established the Microsoft operating system as the industry standard.

That year Jobs asked PepsiCo president John Sculley, who had a reputation for brilliant marketing, to become Apple president and help counter the IBM challenge. In a display of Jobs’ persuasive skills that would enter business history, he said: “If you stay at Pepsi, five years from now all you’ll have accomplished is selling a lot more sugar water to kids. If you come to Apple, you can change the world.”

The Apple Macintosh appeared in 1984, bringing icons and the mouse to a mass audience. Small, light and affordable, it was even described as “lovable” – probably a first for any computer. Yet Microsoft soon emulated the breakthroughs in the Mac, keeping Apple from breaking its stranglehold on the market.

As the battle wore on, Sculley began to see Jobs as disruptive and forced a showdown that led to Jobs’ resignation. Neither Apple nor Jobs did well without the other.

Jobs’ new company, NeXT, developed a high-powered – and expensive – computer for the education market, but was not a success. He did better with a side project: a computerised movie production house called Pixar that he bought in 1986. Pixar had a string of hits, starting with Toy Story, and its eventual purchase by Walt Disney made Jobs the largest individual shareholder of that entertainment colossus.

Apple, meanwhile, lost its technological edge, and a series of chief executives failed to turn the tide. The end seemed in sight for the company until, in 1997, it bought NeXT, bringing Jobs back as an “informal adviser”. NeXT’s software was to form the core of the Mac OS X operating system.

Later that year, Jobs was named interim chief executive officer – a position that was soon made permanent – and the following May brought the launch of a product that signalled the return of the company’s creative spark: the iMac, a one-piece, brightly coloured computer in a curved plastic case. It was a vivid display of how Jobs would go on rebuild the company on a union of compelling design and cutting edge technology. By the end of July, Apple had sold almost 300,000 of the new machines.

It was the start of what was perhaps the most impressive comeback in business history. In completing the turnround, which eventually led this year to Apple briefly becoming the world’s most valuable company, Jobs went on to shake up the personal computing industry he had helped to create with a series of new, portable devices – in the process also upending the mobile communications industry and creating new markets for digital media and entertainment.

The Apple Mac and third-party software, in combination with the laser printer, had provided the essential tools of the desktop publishing revolution in the 1980s. The more powerful Macintosh computers, with large display screens, had become the computers of choice for the graphics and design industries. But that still left Apple with only some 3 per cent of the world market for desktop computers .

Then, in the early years of the new century, Jobs saw a new opportunity. Though many music services had tried to get the major record labels to provide licensed versions of their content online, Jobs was able to convince them that Apple’s technology would protect their songs from piracy. The small, elegant iPod quickly came to dominate the market for portable music players, while iTunes would go on to become the top seller not only of digital music but all forms of music.

The iPhone and iPad that were to follow built on the iPod’s success of combining Apple’s high style and user-friendly technology with online services – in their case, the App Store – to create digital experiences that rivals could not match.

Jobs was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2004. The following year, in a commencement speech to students at Stanford University, he said that receiving a diagnosis that he might die had reinforced a personal philosophy that had been with him since the age of 17. “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life,” he said. “Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”

The illness returned, forcing Jobs to step aside as Apple’s chief executive during the first half of 2009, during which he had a liver transplant. Early this year he announced that he would take another leave of absence from the company because of his health. He retained the title of chief executive until August, when he stepped down while remaining chairman.

Jobs was eventually reunited with his natural mother, Joanne, and met his sister, the novelist Mona Simpson. He was romantically involved with a number of charismatic women, including folk singer Joan Baez, once the lover of Bob Dylan, Jobs’ favourite artist. His high school girlfriend, Chris-Ann, bore him an illegitimate daughter, Lisa. After initially refusing to recognise the child as his, he eventually accepted her and took a strong interest in her career.

In 1991 he married Laurene Powell, an MBA student he met when lecturing at Stanford Graduate Business School. They had three children. She survives him, as do his four children.

Alan Cane, Joseph Menn and Richard Waters

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