One of the most important businessmen and technology innovators of the last half century has died. According to the Associated Press:

Steve Jobs, the Apple founder and former CEO who invented and masterfully marketed ever-sleeker gadgets that transformed everyday technology, from the personal computer to the iPod and iPhone, has died. He was 56. Apple announced his death without giving a specific cause.

Jobs started Apple with a high school friend in a Silicon Valley garage in 1976, was forced out a decade later and returned in 1997 to rescue the company. During his second stint, it grew into the most valuable technology company in the world.

He helped change computers from a geeky hobbyist’s obsession to a necessity of modern life at work and home, and in the process he upended not just personal technology but the cellphone and music industries. For transformation of American industry, he has few rivals.

Perhaps most influentially, Jobs in 2001 launched the iPod, which offered “1,000 songs in your pocket.” Over the next 10 years, its white earphones and thumb-dial control seemed to become more ubiquitous than the wristwatch.

In 2007 came the touch-screen iPhone, joined a year later by Apple’s App Store, where developers could sell iPhone “apps” which made the phone a device not just for making calls but also for managing money, editing photos, playing games and social networking. And in 2010, Jobs introduced the iPad, a tablet-sized, all-touch computer that took off even though market analysts said no one really needed one.

By 2011, Apple had become the second-largest company of any kind in the United States by market value. In August, it briefly surpassed Exxon Mobil as the most valuable company.

My connection to Apple goes back a long way. My brother worked there for 11 years in the 80s and 90s, before he started his own company. He gave me my first Mac (an SE, the 9-inch screen model that came with 1 MB of RAM and a 20 MB hard drive) in 1986, and I’ll never forget the first time I put out a church newsletter on it (using a dot matrix printer, the old ImageWriter). I’ve used PCs as required by churches since 1990, but I’ve never been without a Mac computer since.

I don’t guess I need to explain the importance of the graphic user interface that Xerox invented but Jobs made practical on the Mac, the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad, iTunes–you get the point. Steve Jobs had an amazing intuition for what consumers would want if it was offered to them. He did make mistakes (anybody out there remember the Newton, an early form of PDA?), and could be arrogantly certain of what consumers should want, even if they didn’t (I recall the howling over his elimination of the floppy drive from the iMac in 1998, despite the lack of a writable CD drive–he eventually won his point, but not before millions of Mac users bought external USB floppy drives). But his impact on the world of technology is undeniable, as is the success of his visionary leadership that made Apple one of the most most profitable and best known companies on the planet.