Like millions of Apple users around the world, I learned that Steve Jobs had died when I turned on my Mac on Wednesday evening. There his picture was, staring out from the Apple homepage when I went to my browser: his signature black turtleneck; his close-cropped grey hair and beard; his piercing, pale eyes.
I felt enormous sadness -- the kind that makes your throat constrict to force back tears, and at first, I couldn't quite figure out why. I certainly didn't know Jobs. I couldn't even have told you whether he had a family or how old he was or where he called home. But I know the world would not be the same if Steve Jobs had not lived.
Few men or women change the way ordinary people live in any fundamental way. But Jobs did. His genius was to make computers not just practical but lovely to look at and sensuous to the touch, to make using them intuitive, to bring them out of our offices and into our lives. He took what was an esoteric piece of engineered hardware and made it accessible to even the technologically challenged.
Jobs defined cool. He was the successful businessman who preferred jeans to pinstripes. He was the idea man who knew how to get others to execute his concepts. He was the ultimate comeback kid, booted out of his own company only to come to its rescue and take it to new heights. In between, he started a film production company that revolutionized animation and another that helped develop the World Wide Web.
And Steve Jobs' Apple, unlike Bill Gates' Microsoft, was willing to remain cutting-edge, to satisfy a niche market that demanded excellence, to woo customers rather than force them to buy its products. When chain stores chose not to carry Macs because of their small market share, Apple opened its own distinctive, customer-friendly stores.
But there was more to our fascination with Jobs than his marketing genius. He was the ultimate underdog, the one who deserved to be number one if only the world were truly a meritocracy. The Macintosh should have become the computer industry standard, but it never has. Its global market share has never exceeded the low single digits.
The iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad revolutionized the way we listen to music, talk to our friends and families, share pictures, receive mail, browse the Internet and watch movies, but lower-priced competitors have ensured that Apple will never corner the market even in areas it pioneered.
And that may explain, in part, our fascination with Jobs. Despite his talent, his ambition and his hard work, he never quite made it to the very top of the mountain. There was always someone more successful, if not more visionary. That may also explain why he kept climbing.
We Americans are drawn to such men, the ones who keep trying, who don't rest on their laurels but strive every day to do better than the last. We believe in men who believe in themselves. We like innovators who are never satisfied with yesterday's great new thing. And Jobs fulfilled all of those aspirations.
He was the guy we all wish we could be. He had brains and drive and panache. And when pancreatic cancer struck him, we all hoped that maybe he'd beat it. He didn't ask for pity. He didn't retreat from the world. He fought his disease and stayed running his company until he knew that staying on was good for neither him nor Apple.
As news of Jobs' death spread, admirers from Beijing to Boston took out their iPads and iPhones and lit virtual candles in his memory. The pictures of the mourners, which quickly began cropping up on websites, were an eerie symbol of the old and the new. Our need to express ourselves is as old as humankind. But we have Steve Jobs to thank for having created myriad new tools to allow us to do so in ever more creative ways.