Thomas Alva Edison: Transformed American industry and culture by inventing the phonograph and the motion picture camera and developing a long-lasting electric light bulb. Known as the Wizard of Menlo Park, Edison also founded General Electric. In this photo from 1877, Edison stands with the phonograph.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Henry Ford: Brought automobiles to the masses through his Ford Motor Co. and pioneered the use of assembly-line manufacturing. In this 1927 photo, Ford drives his company's first vehicle, the Quadricycle.
Walt Disney: Revolutionized animation and inspired iconic characters, stories and Walt Disney Co. theme parks that have become a permanent fixture in popular culture. Disney posed with a Donald Duck character while reading from Alice in Wonderland during a 1951 movie premiere in London.
Edward G. Malindine/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
Bill Gates: Brought cheap, usable software to the masses and helped shepherd in the age of the Internet – though some business pundits cast him as more innovator than visionary. The Microsoft co-founder, seen in this September 2002 photo, went on to become one of the world's richest people.
Steve Jobs: Co-founded Apple Computer, which radically changed the way people use computers through the use of the mouse and user-friendly operating systems. Developed the iPod, iPhone and iPad as well as the iTunes online music store. In this April 2010 photo, Jobs unveiled the new iPhone OS4 software in Cupertino, Calif.
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Visionary. Uncompromising. Intuitive. Risk-taking. Steve Jobs — the man who helped build a company and used it to transform multiple industries and popular culture — could have been lifted from the pages of a college textbook on how to be a successful CEO.
He was "the most incredible businessperson in the world," Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak told CBS News on Thursday, a day after Jobs' death.
Sure, there are other luminaries doing groundbreaking work in the technology industry: Amazon.com's Jeff Bezos revolutionized e-commerce. Google's Sergey Brin and Larry Page transformed the way we find things on the Internet. But to locate someone like Jobs, someone who so thoroughly fit the multiple roles of visionary, innovator and cultural icon, you'd probably have to reach for your iPad and search back decades.
"Who's out there today? Gee, the example that [Jobs] set, it's hard to think of anyone," said Saul Kaplan, founder of the Business Innovation Factory, a Providence, R.I.-based network for businesses and organizations.
Jobs belongs on a short list of great modern innovators — alongside the likes of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, says Michael Cusumano, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management.
And while no one discounts the importance of his longtime rival, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Jobs ultimately stands alone, Cusumano says. He adds: "What Gates did was important — he brought cheap, usable software to the masses. But the impact of Jobs is greater."
So where will the next American visionary come from? By definition, it's someone on the cusp of an entirely new industry with an as-yet unrealized potential to change the culture, says Karim Lakhani, a professor at Harvard Business School who specializes in technology and operations management.
"The thing is, if there is a Steve Jobs out there right now, we won't know for the next 30 years," Lakhani says. "He had a wonderful, luscious career starting at the beginning of the PC revolution. He moved computers from the realm of an engineering tool to an object of daily use by individuals of all stripes."
Jobs' unique qualities also narrow the field for potential successors.
"What made him so special? If I had to choose a few words, I would say intuition and focus," says Erik Calonius, author of Ten Steps Ahead: What Separates Successful Business Visionaries from the Rest of Us.
In 1985, after losing an internal power struggle at Apple, Jobs was forced out. A year later, he switched gears and bought the computer graphics unit of Lucasfilm. That company became Pixar, which released the first of its transformative computer-animated films, Toy Story, in 1995.
The following year, Jobs made a messiah-like return to Apple, which had lost significant market share to PCs running Microsoft's Windows operating system. The Cupertino-based company's share price was in the gutter, hovering around $6.
"He came into the company that he founded just as it was about to die," Calonius says, adding that Apple also had way too many products — about 300 — at the time.
"Jobs whittled it down to 50 and then to just a half-dozen that he was really going to concentrate on. He had the intuition to know which ones were the right products to focus on," Calonius says.
Jobs' resurgence is another reason his story is so strong, Calonius says. He compares the Apple founder's return from oblivion to another dreamer who stumbled but recovered to write the most important chapters of his life: Walt Disney. The famous animator's first studio went bankrupt in 1923.
Few CEOs have such close involvement with their products and customers as Jobs did, and it's the thing that helped him turn the impersonal MP3 and mobile phone into cultural totems: the iPod and the iPhone, Harvard's Lakhani says.
"He truly understood the average user's experience with these devices," Lakhani notes. That kind of involvement with the product is something CEOs tend to lose once they've settled into the corner office, he said.
Jobs also had a "disruptive" quality because he understood that constant change was the only way to stay out in front, says Kaplan of the Business Innovation Factory. He set out to create the market, to lead the market, and to let companies follow behind.
"Imagine when Steve Jobs came in and said, 'We are going to open up our own stores to distribute our products," Kaplan muses. "Everyone in that organization at that time was invested in the old model where they distributed through other retailers. And here comes Jobs saying we're going to completely upend that."
The first Apple store opened in 2001 in Tyson's Corner, Va., drawing a crowd of hundreds of people. There are now more than 350 outlets around the world, from Fifth Avenue in New York City to outside the Louvre in Paris.
Innovators like Jobs "are incredibly passionate," Kaplan says. "They have a very strong viewpoint that they are willing to put out there, but they also have this vulnerability because they know that they're missing something. They are constantly looking for that missing thing.