Here is the memory that came up when I heard Steve Jobs was dead, the image that’s probably stuck in my mind, the cover to the mental photo album that will inevitably be retrieved whenever someone talks about him.
It’s January 2010. He’s sitting in a chair, black leather, comfy, Le Corbusier. He’s got this lonely Eero Saarinen table next to him – a mutant white tulip that failed to bloom properly – but he’s ignoring it. He’s got his dumb, eternal mock turtleneck and blue jeans flooded a few inches above his running shoes, and his left ankle is dangling in an ungainly fashion over his right knee.
He’s talking to you. But he’s not looking at you. His gaze – normally directed to some abstract space in the auditorium that he senses but that you can’t see – is given to the gadget in his lap. The gadget’s screen is projected into a larger screen on the back of stage, maybe 11 times as tall as Steve Jobs. Look at him: He’s like someone petting a beloved cat in his lap, only his pet is the iPad, and all his coddling is to show us what he thinks the future of computing is.
And the 18 or so months that have passed since the iPad launched have proven him right. The iPad still controls 80 percent of the North American tablet market, and is steadily eating away at the PC market – of which Apple has long been a fringe company, commanding at best a 5% market share.
Yes, fringe. But one of Steve Jobs’ legacies is exploring the power of the fringe. In any given year of the past decade, Dell and HP may have sold more PC units running Microsoft Windows than Apple did, but neither company has sold them at the profit margin of Macbooks. The bottom-line financials are the same with iPhones vs. Android phones, and iPads vs. other tablets (including the Kindle Fire, which Amazon is selling at a loss).
The iPad was the culmination of one man’s lifelong vision of what dealing with a computer should be. Let’s face it: Computers, as designed by humans, may offer many conveniences, but from an intuitive and emotional perspective, they are largely a pain in the ass for humans to use. There was a huge market opportunity for someone to alleviate that pain. And if the legacy of Bill Gates was to make that pain ubiquitous, the thing we will remember Steve Jobs for is that he showed us that a computer doesn’t have to be so painful.
Many words will be spilled about Steve Jobs in the coming days, but I suspect not enough will be said about his fundamental accomplishments. For example, as much as Jobs cared about what we wanted, he never listened to what we said we wanted. Apple famously shunned focus groups for its engineers’ instincts – but more importantly, at its best, Apple let us decide.
The fonts on the first Macintoshes were frivolous indulgences. Now they are part of the language of web design. The desktop and its cartoon icons felt at first like a hackneyed cliché. Now they’re a foundation of our digital realities. In part tribute, part robbery, Microsoft copied these innovations, not knowing it was disseminating Apple’s vision into a future where Apple would thrive.
That future can be measured in ways that, if not gratifying to hardcore Apple fanboys, would make Wall Street analysts – and CEOs around the world – take note. Apple’s stock trades at $378 a share, which means little until you consider its market cap is $350 billion against Microsoft’s $216 billion. Its fiscal revenue of $109 billion will dwarf Microsoft’s revenue in its last fiscal year. It’s taken more than three decades, but Apple has finally beaten Microsoft, by any meaningful measurement.
And Apple did it because Jobs beat Gates at the long-term game. Bill Gates’ legacy will be the Gates Foundation – an admirable organization with long-term goals built on Microsoft’s profits in the ’80s and ’90s. Windows will be a footnote in Gates’ legacy, he’ll always be about how he spent the money he made. But technology, and what it could do, will be Jobs’ legacy. Jobs will be remembered less for his cash than his innovations. And I suspect that’s how he’d want it.
I don’t want to undermine what Gates has done in the past few years. He’s applied his considerable wealth to many of the world’s problems. But here’s the thing: You can change the world by donating money, or you can change it by re-engineering how it works. Gates did the former, and Jobs did the latter. Both are good, but I know which route most geeks would choose.
Steve Jobs didn’t just change how we interact with personal computers, he defined it. He bridged the gap between what personal computers are and what personal computers could be. Jobs was always like Ash in Army of Darkness, trying to usher a medieval age into modernity before its time. So the first Macintosh prefigured the Macbook Pro, and the Newton heralded the iPad – if only anyone would listen.
In the process, he redefined coding, he redefined computing, he redefined design.
Yeah, there will be many paeans written to Steve Jobs. Then there will be the inevitable reports of how he abused co-workers verbally and how he was hard to work for.
But he also gave me the first computer I ever loved, and several that followed. You may smile at that admission, but I doubt anybody in business today would have minded trading places with him.
(Kevin Kelleher is a writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is a regular contributor at Fortune.com and DailyFinance, among other publications.)