Steve Jobs, 1955-2011: Technology’s greatest visionary

October 6, 2011, 11:17 AM UTC

FORTUNE — On Wednesday, America lost its most successful chief executive, the technology industry lost its greatest visionary, and Silicon Valley lost a giant whose influence will be felt for years to come.

Steve Jobs, who by the force of his charisma, intuition and personality reshaped industries and turned Apple into America’s most valued company, died at the age of 56.

“Steve’s brilliance, passion and energy were the source of countless innovations that enrich and improve all of our lives, the Apple board said
in a statement. “The world is immeasurably better because of Steve.”

I can’t claim to have known Jobs well, though as a reporter covering Apple (AAPL) I spoke with him on several occasions. But in the nearly 30 years I have lived in Silicon Valley, I was struck by one thing that never changed: Whatever Steve Jobs did mattered.

In the mid-1980s, I worked as a software engineer at Sun Microsystems. The period marked the nadir of Jobs’ career. He had just been pushed out of Apple, the company he co-founded in 1976 with his high-school friend Steve Wozniak. Jobs had gone on to start NeXT, a maker of computer workstations designed for the education market. NeXT never became a major force in the industry, which Sun dominated. But at Sun, where I worked under technology visionaries like Eric Schmidt, Andy Bechtolsheim and Bill Joy, that didn’t seem to be important. Everyone at Sun carefully tracked the progress of Jobs’ little startup. Everyone was aware of NeXT and everyone respected it. Everyone, it seemed, was aware of the genius of Steve Jobs.

Jobs, of course, had earned that respect. At Apple, Jobs had already created the Apple II, the first computer that would appeal to consumers, and the Macintosh, the machine that made computers accessible to the masses. He had also shown that his uncompromising aesthetic and sense of design mattered, even if many in the industry remained unconvinced at the time. Few would dispute that today.

Some 10 years later, I remember heading to Microsoft (MSFT) near Seattle as a reporter, to cover a conference for financial analysts. Jobs had recently returned to Apple and introduced the first iMacs, the multicolored egg-shaped computers that came encased in translucent plastic. Apple was nearly bankrupt and its market share of the computer business was insignificant. Yet it was clear that the iMac mattered, even if some of Job’s rivals heaped scorn on it. “The one thing Apple’s providing now is leadership in colors,” Bill Gates, then the C.E.O. of Microsoft, said during the conference. “It won’t take long for us to catch up with that, I don’t think.”

In many ways, Microsoft never understood what made Apple unique, and it never caught up. The candy-colored iMacs were the first step in the most remarkable turnaround in American business. They also became the latest indication of Jobs’ most uncanny gift: his ability to come up with products that consumers would want even before they knew they wanted them.

Still Apple’s transformation into a juggernaut was not immediate. As Apple remained a niche player in the ensuing years, I remember friends in the tech industry asking me why Apple received so much coverage in the press. The media’s obsession with Apple, they argued, was wildly disproportionate to its importance in the marketplace. I didn’t have a good answer, other than to say that what Jobs did always seemed to matter. And it did more so by the day.

At the time, Jobs was in the process of reshaping the movie business with Pixar, which had produced hits like Toy Story and A Bug’s Life, and which he later sold to Disney (DIS) for $7.4 billion. A couple of years later, Jobs dragged the music industry into the digital age with the iPod and iTunes, and in the process, turned Apple into the world’s largest seller of music and music players. He then led the mobile computing revolution with the iPhone, Apple’s most successful and profitable device ever. And almost as an encore, he singlehandedly created a new, multi-billion dollar category of mobile computers with the iPad.

“Other people have built amazing companies or created new industries,” the veteran Silicon Valley technology forecaster Paul Saffo told me earlier this year. “But Steve is alone in that he started multiple companies and launched multiple revolutions.”

No one questions the importance of Steve Jobs any more. As the tributes began pouring in Wednesday, they were honoring a giant, a college dropout with a contrarian streak who transformed himself into a modern-day Henry Ford.

“The world rarely sees someone who has had the profound impact Steve has had, the effects of which will be felt for many generations to come,” said Gates, Jobs’ erstwhile competitor, who became his friend in recent years. “For those of us lucky enough to get to work with him, it’s been an insanely great honor. I will miss Steve immensely.”

Mark Zuckerberg, a mogul of a new generation, wrote on Facebook: “Steve, thank you for being a mentor and a friend. Thanks for showing that what you build can change the world. I will miss you.”

And President Obama said: “There may be no greater tribute to Steve’s success than the fact that much of the world learned of his passing on a device he invented.” Indeed, Jobs truly made technology relevant to everyone.