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The sweet revenge of Steve Jobs

January 21, 2008 12:09 IST

Some say Apple chief executive Steve Jobs is an egomaniac. Others have written that he's a tyrant. And if it's true, then so much the better--because if you can pitch a new product as Jobs does, no one should get in your way.

Oh, and he knows how to make his investors a buck too. 

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Over the past decade, Jobs has hijacked the global music business, turned Apple's decrepit computer business into a juggernaut, and he is now threatening to steamroll through the global wireless industry with the iPhone. As a result, Apple's shares have risen more than 38-fold over the past 10 years. By contrast, Microsoft, one of the most successful companies on the planet, has only managed to double its share price over the same stretch of time.

And all the while Jobs was also running a company called Pixar that has reinvented animation for the digital age and dragged the company that bought it in 2006 for $7.4 billion--Disney--into the 21st century. Not a bad pair of second acts for the man who helped spark the personal computer revolution.

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Jobs first rose to fame as the smooth-talking young co-founder of one of the first personal computer companies, Apple. But while co-founder Steve Wozniak was an archetypal engineer--a veteran of Hewlett-Packard--Jobs was something new. The college dropout quickly gained a reputation as a demanding manager, a brilliant pitchman and someone who seemed to have a knack for knowing with the future would bring.

It's a heady mix of brains, idealism and bravado that was best summed up in 1993 when Jobs lured John Sculley from PepsiCo to Apple to serve as the chief executive of his company with the pitch: "Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water or do you want a chance to change the world?" Sculley, of course, bought it. 

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Then, just a few months after his 30th birthday, in 1985, Jobs was out, and it looked as if he would share the fate of so many of Silicon Valley's must successful entrepreneurs: rich, but unable to take his company, or career, to the next level.

Instead, Apple faltered. By the mid-1990s, Apple's product line was a train wreck. Worse yet, the operating system that Apple's business was built around was out of date, and Apple's efforts to find a way forward were flailing.

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Meanwhile, Jobs was experimenting at his new company, NeXT Computer, with the far-out ideas that would later spark a renaissance at Apple. The company pushed software with Unix roots, and emphasised systems that bound computers together in sprawling networks, rather than treating them as stand-alone "personal" computers. In 1996, Apple announced it would buy NeXT, bringing Jobs back to the company he helped found.

The story of Jobs' career to 1996 is a long saga. But for Jobs, it has been just the warm-up act.

Brian Caulfield, Forbes