Image Credit: Shaun Curry/Getty ImagesSteve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Inc. and Pixar Studios, and the man behind the launch of the iPod, iPhone, and iPad, died today in California at the age of 56, according to Apple. Jobs first revealed he was battling pancreatic cancer in 2004, having surgery later that year. This past January he announced he was taking a medical leave of absence from his position at Apple until the end of June; he resigned his post as CEO of the company on Aug. 24.

Jobs was a visionary, a technical genius, a ruthless dealmaker, a control freak, a cool-packaging fetishist, and a celeb who loved delivering his company’s products to other celebs as a way to network. But most of all, Apple CEO Steve Jobs was a salesman.

Videos of his keynote addresses, those heavily live-blogged events at which he unveiled the latest Apple products and innovations, are archived all over the Internet. They’ll be dissected at business schools for decades, because they demonstrate directly that there’s never been a more galvanizing high-tech celebrant. Whatever he was extolling—the introduction of the iPad, the latest iteration of the iPhone, the newest, most capacious iPod music players—Jobs came on not like a business executive but like an amalgam of high priest and rock star. He brought a showman’s flair to what were essentially glorified PowerPoint presentations, prowling a stark promontory with a large display screen behind him and dressed always in jeans, sneakers and a mock-turtleneck black shirt. (Did he own any other kind of presentation outfit?) He was especially good at proselytizing about the convergence of hand-held devices, computers, and digital media. “You can take your whole music library with you right in your pocket,” he gushed to an audience in October 2001, when the first iPod debuted and permanently smashed the idea of CDs as hip. “Never before possible.” While demonstrating the first iPad touch-screen-tablet computer in January 2010, he piled on superlatives, pronouncing the device “awesome,” “incredible,” “phenomenal,” “super-responsive, super-precise,” and finally “magical and revolutionary”—and yet he never sounded specious.

That was perhaps Jobs’s greatest gift: to make blatant hyperbole feel like a rightly enthusiastic celebration of demonstrable facts, by virtue of what both admirers and detractors called his personal “reality distortion field.”

Alas, we’ve lost our wizard of aahs. Though he never fully acknowledged it publicly—he hated the fact that his health was a global talking point—Jobs was evidently felled by ongoing complications from a rare form of pancreatic cancer he’d been fighting in earnest since 2004. He died Oct. 5, in California. In sickness as in business, Jobs wanted to shape the message. There was a pattern to his medical travails: He would disappear first, triggering rampant speculation that his death was imminent. (Just Google “Steve Jobs death watch” and marvel at the long trail of false alarms.) He would then bounce back and reveal, obliquely, what had been going on, but only after the fact. He had secret surgery to remove a tumor back in 2004. A liver transplant put him out of action for six months in 2009, by which time he had grown startlingly gaunt in public appearances. In January 2011, Jobs announced an indefinite and unexplained medical leave, promising he’d be back “as soon as I can.” He never made it. Instead, after resigning his CEO title on Aug. 24, he suffered the saddest fatal system error the computing world has ever known. He’d seemed super-human for so long, hanging on against a disease that’s typically fatal within months.

Because Jobs made himself such a high-profile CEO, the media has been busy not only mourning his loss, but evaluating how big a financial ripple effect his departure may create. At Pixar Animation Studios, birthplace of the Toy Story films and so many other computer-animated hits, including Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Wall-E, and Up, Jobs had served for 21 years as a deep-pocketed benefactor and CEO, from 1985 to 2006. But he’d never been involved in day-to-day creative duties. Once he sold Pixar to Disney in 2006, Jobs was more an overlord than a hands-on manager. At Disney, he’d used the Pixar purchase to become a board member, an idea-man gadfly to CEO Robert Iger, as well as the company’s largest shareholder. His genius for pied-pipering the public into new media platforms will certainly be missed at the studio.

But by far the deepest hole Jobs leaves is at Apple, where he put the “I” in every i-product.Just as Walt Disney once embodied the Disney brand, Jobs became Apple. The singularity is both actual and perceptual. Jobs was always careful in interviews to frame the company’s achievements as things “we” accomplished, yet he rarely spelled out exactly who that encompassed. Result: The public thought of “we” as Jobs, accepting the appealingly messianic and highly marketable image of the man as the actual inventor of everything Apple did. In a way, Jobs really was that one-man-band, since even people who begrudged him his vast ego and short fuse acknowledged that he was intimately involved with every marketing, design, packaging and advertising decision Apple ever made. Without him, will Apple feel more like a cover-version, greatest-hits-recycling outfit than an original-artist sort of enterprise?

Beyond his role at Apple, Jobs also served as a hugely influential digital-media referee and cheerleader. He rescued a foundering music industry that had been unable to organize itself in the face of rampant Inernet-based piracy at the turn of the last century. He did this by spearheading rapid development of the music-file-management technology in iPod portable players, along with the iTunes software that drives them. (Since 2001, Apple has sold more than 300 million iPods, with 11 billion-plus songs downloaded.) The movie, TV, and publishing industries are also moving toward digital distribution as a mainstay, in good part through Apple’s infrastructure—which has disgorged some 450 million TV episodes, 100 million movies, and 35 million e-books via iPods, iPads, iPhones, and Macintosh laptops and desktop computers. But Jobs won’t be there any more to referee. He won’t be bird-dogging the playback interfaces and keeping the pricing and format brawls in check. It as if It’s a Wonderful Life’s George Bailey is gone and he’s never, ever coming back to Bedford Falls. Who can take his place as a strong-man arbiter?

In the history of American business, there’s never been anything quite like the dramatic up-down-up-again career path Jobs followed. He was raised as an only child by adoptive parents in northern California (his younger blood sister, whom he only met as an adult, was the acclaimed L.A.-based novelist Mona Simpson). As a teenager, he was already building crude computers in his folks’ garage along with circuit-board wonk Steve Wozniak. He cofounded Apple with “Woz” in 1976, at age 22. In 1984, he helped Apple launch the world’s first mass-market graphical user interface via the Macintosh personal computer. (It used a “mouse” and clickable icons instead of requiring clunky, arcane keyboard commands). But Jobs wasn’t nearly as accomplished at structuring interfaces with actual human beings. Branded as too petulant, erratic, and unrealistic to be a good businessman, he was forced out of his own company in 1985. At age 30, he was considered washed up.

A dozen years of struggle and debt followed as Jobs burned through a post-Apple fortune in the neighborhood of $100 million. He flopped with the computer-workstation company NeXT. But another almost offhanded purchase wound up successful beyond anyone’s expectations. In 1986, George Lucas was looking to spin off his computer-graphics research division. (He needed cash for a divorce from his wife, Marcia.) Jobs bought him out for a lowball de facto bid of $10 million, a quarter of what Lucas wanted. Jobs incorporated the group as Pixar, and saw the outfit through years of red ink before Disney signed them as partners to create the world’s first computer-animated full-length feature, Toy Story. Jobs sank nearly $60 million into Pixar and, with no profits in sight, frequently considered selling it off or bringing in another investor. “Pixar was a money pit for me,” he told a documentarian. “I think the thing that saved [it] was that we’d all get depressed, but not all at once. One of us would get very forlorn about the situation and think about throwing in the towel, but others would shore that one up.”

In November 1995, Toy Story opened to a spectacular critical and box-office reception. Jobs seized the moment to make Pixar a publicly traded company with an IPO the following month. He held 80 percent of the stock, and on paper it made him an instant billionaire. Two years later, his pot got richer. Apple bought out NeXT, in good part to get hold of some innovations withing its well-regarded operating system. But Apple was floundering in market share, having long since been trumped by Microsoft and Bill Gates and Windows. In desperation, Apple’s board brought Jobs back in as CEO—a stunning turn of events that drove business reporters into a froth. What a story! Jobs now helmed the world’s best CG-’toon studio and the company he cofounded.

Jobs’ main role at Pixar had been to write fat checks and serve as a contract-negotiation bulwark against Disney; he effectively pushed for bigger and bigger shares of profit as Pixar became more successful. (It’s a shoving match he won handily when Disney paid a staggering $7.4 billion to buy Pixar outright in 2006.) But in returning to Apple, he took a much more hands-on role—and it didn’t play out like a light-hearted animated comedy. For his very first meeting back at Apple in 1997, Jobs arrived unshaven, in shorts, and bluntly declared, “The products suck! There’s no sex in them any more.”

Jobs tore through the company’s balance sheets, canceling projects left and right and simplifying what had become a large, confusing product line. It took several years, but he and his staff managed to reshape Apple into a leading harbinger of the home computer as media-consumption hub: a central portal designed to make Internet access painless and simple, and to provide easy synchronization with playback and data-storage devices like the iPod and iPhone. The transformation returned Apple to healthy profits, as well as a lauded position as an admired company. It was an extroardinary act of will, but the course change also led to some management carnage that brought up all the old grumbling in Silicon Valley about Jobs’ caustic side.

Like a lot of brilliant people, Steve Jobs was not exactly patient. He was mercurial, demanding, and capable of profane outbursts. He would court talented new employees, flatter them, lionize them, then turn on them, berating and belittling them mercilessly. (Colleagues called it the “hero-s—head rollercoaster.”) Jobs derided people who didn’t agree with him as “bozos,” though he later came to respect intelligent dissent. And if there was a bug in a piece of software, he was the bug up your backside until it was fixed. “I want to put a ding in the universe,” he announced early in his career. If that overweening ambition put a ding or two in people around him along the way, so be it.

“He pushes right to the edge, to try to make the next big step forward,” Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull said of Jobs a few years ago. “It’s built into him.”

That tenacity became so central a part of Jobs’ public persona that Newsweek writer Daniel Lyons created a website to lampoon it in 2006 under the pseudonym Fake Steve Jobs. Labeled a “Secret Diary,” it was a wickedly satirical blog, and Lyons extended the conceit in a mock-autobiographical 2007 book, Options: The Secret Life of Steve Jobs. “Obviously we can’t literally put our employees’ lives at risk,” declared Fake Steve. “But we have to make them feel that way.” (The site went dormant in the last few months.)

On Jan. 17, 2011, the real Steve Jobs issued a statement pulling a metaphorical curtain around himself. “My family and I would deeply appreciate respect for our privacy,” he said. By Aug. 24, he formally stepped down as CEO, indicating that he “could no longer meet [his] duties and obligations.” Tim Cook, the company’s longtime chief operating officer who had overseen the company through Jobs’ previous medical leaves, assumed the chief executive job.

But much as Jobs seemed to bristle at what he saw as intrusions from outsiders, he was among the toughest, least sentimental assessors of his own mortality. After his first pancreatic-cancer scare in 2004, he was keenly aware of how fleeting his own time might be. He delivered a breathtakingly blunt commencement speech at Stanford University in 2005. “Death is very likely the single best invention of life,” he told the graduating class. “It is life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.”

The race is now on among Apple’s competitors to see what holes can be punched in the company’s new-media game plan. It’s time for a new wave of designers and programmers and new historical and technological forces to fill the vacuum Jobs leaves, and for us to see whether the digital revolution he spearheaded will continue as he envisioned, or shoot off in unexpected directions. The universe has pressed “shuffle play.” And for once, Steve Jobs hasn’t got the control buttons in his hands.

More on Steve Jobs: