The question now: Is his successor, Tim Cook, aggressive enough to muscle Apple into new turf like TV and publishing where the company hasn't yet established a dominant foothold?
The real test for Mr. Cook will come when he is no longer benefiting from Mr. Jobs's triumphs and must conquer new markets on his own. Executives in media companies, for instance, are reluctant to give up control of their products and fear Apple will end up eating away at their profits. Mr. Cook must win them over.
Investors are standing by Apple's new management for now—its stock fell just 0.65% Thursday while the broader Nasdaq dropped nearly 2%.
An Apple spokeswoman declined to comment.
An immediate challenge for Mr. Cook will be to advance Apple's plans in what is expected to be a key market for growth: digital video. Apple is working on new technology to deliver video to televisions, and has been discussing whether to try to launch a subscription TV service, according to people familiar with the matter. Unlike the iPod and music, where Apple has a commanding position, the battle to rule online video remains wide open and the company faces fierce competition.
Apple's digital-book, magazine and newspaper services are in their early days.
Even if Mr. Cook is willing to take the kind of risks that Mr. Jobs did, the company's board will likely scrutinize his moves more carefully, said Forrester Research Chief Executive George Colony. "It will be very reasoned and logical, but Apple will not take the leaps that it took when you had Steve in that chair," he said.
Then there's the bully factor. One of the biggest advantages that Apple will lose without Mr. Jobs at the helm, said an Apple business partner, is the "fear that Steve instilled."
For instance, Mr. Jobs famously browbeat some music industry executives to agree to his terms when he launched the iTunes music store that eventually upended the music industry.
"Steve can be pretty unvarnished, he's never understated about his beliefs," said Time Warner Inc. CEO Jeff Bewkes, whose company had to negotiate with Apple over iTunes. "If he thinks that you're not doing something right, he will tell you why in pretty colorful terms, which I have always appreciated."
At times, Mr. Jobs used his power of persuasion to convince companies that they had to work with Apple, even if it meant giving up some control. "It all stems from Steve's animal drive to not let anyone control him or his company," said Jean-Louis Gassee, a venture capitalist and former Apple executive.
Compared with Mr. Jobs's fiery style, Mr. Cook's management approach is more measured and analytical, people who know him say.
In a letter to employees on Thursday, Mr. Cook said Apple wouldn't change. "Steve built a culture that is unlike any other in the world and we are going to stay true to that—it is in our DNA."
Mr. Jobs will go down in the annals of business as one of the greatest disrupters. His Apple II helped launch the PC revolution. His Macintosh and publishing software took printing out of commercial printing shops and put it on anyone's desktop. His iPod grabbed dominance of the portable music player—a market pioneered by Sony Corp.'s transistor radios in the 1950s and its Walkman in the 1970s—from traditional consumer-electronic giants. He then used the iPod to help launch iTunes and wrest control of music sales from record stores, helping spell the demise of retailers like Tower Records.
Mr. Jobs's iPhone shook up the mobile-phone world, and his iPad ushered in a whole new category of mobile gadgets that consumers didn't even know they wanted.
Mr. Jobs often forced competitors to react to Apple. Last week, Google Inc. acquired Motorola Inc. in large part to shore up its patents so it can continue to offer a smartphone-operating system that competes with Apple. Hewlett-Packard Co. recently said it was spinning off its computer business and shutting down the business that it acquired from Palm Inc. as it was unable to compete in the mobile-device world that Apple now dominates.
Mr. Jobs's success in reaching deals with partners often gave Apple a huge competitive advantage. When Apple signed an exclusive deal with AT&T Inc. for the iPhone, it persuaded the carrier to give it complete control over the branding and marketing of the device, a concession that no other mobile phone maker has been able to get.
When Apple ran into a problem with AT&T, Mr. Jobs made the phone call that triggered prompt action. When iPhone sales started accelerating after the debut of the iPhone 3GS in 2009 and AT&T had trouble handling the network capacity from iPhone users, Mr. Jobs called Glenn Lurie, then AT&T's point man on its relationship with Apple, and chewed him out for poor service that damaged Apple's brand, according to people familiar with the matter. The following year, the carrier rolled out a major commitment to boost spending on its network.
When record companies were initially balking at the idea of the iTunes music store in 2003, Mr. Jobs made a plea directly with the rock group the Eagles to persuade them, and its label, AOL Time Warner Inc.'s Warner Music to sign. He even offered to personally demo the service for Eagles singer Don Henley.
Mr. Jobs won media chiefs over by convincing them that they lacked successful digital strategies and needed to be saved, several media executives said. "He tells you you are a nematode," said one senior media executive. He makes you feel that "if you listen to him, you have a chance."
More recently, Apple has made headway in striking deals for digital delivery of newspapers and magazines, after Mr. Jobs disparaged publishers' print products, people familiar with the matter said. Big names like Condé Nast and Hearst Corp. have come around, beginning to sell subscriptions to their titles through iTunes, even as Apple has restricted how they can sell their content and gather data. Media executives have often said they have no choice but to do business with Apple as few other digital distribution alternatives exist.
When talks between Apple and some of the major magazine publishers were hung up on the terms under which publishers could sell their iPad editions, Mr. Jobs offered to step in and "break any ties," one industry executive said. Ultimately, however, the two sides worked out their differences, rendering his intervention unnecessary.
As for the future under Mr. Cook, this executive said, "The question is going to be if a whole new version of this needs to be invented, I don't know enough about [Cook's] background to know if he's going to spur the innovation to create breakout products," he said. "But I can say they have a big bench."
Mr. Jobs often criticizes, in public and private, the experience of watching TV as clumsy and bad for consumers. But he has said the existing system, where consumers get content from different cable and satellite providers that use different technologies, makes it difficult to innovate.
Both he and Mr. Cook have called Apple TV, a box that allows consumers to watch media from iTunes and a few other online video services, like Netflix Inc., on TVs, "a hobby."
But the area is shaping up to be a big priority for a wide range of companies, from cable and satellite providers to its Internet rivals like Google Inc. And to crack it, Apple needs to try to redefine not only the experience of watching TV but the business model of how consumers pay for it once again, analysts say. While iTunes popularized buying individual TV shows or movies, consumers already are flocking to new subscription services like Netflix that offer unlimited access for a low monthly fee.
In 2009, Apple tried rounding up media companies to offer a bundle of TV shows for a monthly fee through iTunes, according to people familiar with the discussions. But it tabled the talks after few showed interest.
"They just don't have the deals yet," said Richard Doherty, an analyst at the Envisioneering Group. Mr. Doherty likens Apple's attempt to change the TV business model to "pushing this giant marshmallow uphill." TV, with myriad rights holders and cable and satellite companies to reckon with, is "light years" tougher to transform than the music industry, he said.
People who have worked with Mr. Cook at Apple say that he often arrives at the same conclusion as Mr. Jobs, albeit with a lower-key approach. Suppliers who have dealt with Mr. Cook's team say he is a formidable negotiator, and his team haggles down the price of parts to the half a penny.