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Earlier this month, Apple briefly surpassed Exxon Mobil as the most valuable company in America, with Apple stock on the open market worth more than any other company’s.

Under Jobs, the company cloaked itself in secrecy to build frenzied anticipation for each of its new products. Jobs himself had a wizardly sense of what his customers wanted, and where demand didn’t exist, he leveraged a cult-like following to create it.

When he spoke at Apple presentations, almost always in faded blue jeans, sneakers and a black mock turtleneck, legions of Apple acolytes listened to every word. He often boasted about Apple successes, then coyly added a coda _ “One more thing” _ before introducing its latest ambitious idea.

But recent performances have been clouded by a different kind of interest. Observers have scrutinized Jobs‘ appearance and mannerisms for clues about his health. Apple won’t say whether Jobs‘ health has worsened.

In 2004, Jobs revealed that he had been diagnosed with _ and “cured” of _ a rare form of operable pancreatic cancer called an islet cell neuroendocrine tumor. In early 2009, it became clear he was again ill.

Jobs took a half-year medical leave of absence starting in January 2009, during which he had a liver transplant. Last January, he announced another medical leave, his third, with no set duration. He returned to the spotlight briefly in March to personally unveil a second-generation iPad.

The adoration now surrounding Jobs would have seemed highly unlikely in his early days.

Jobs, whose hippie sensibilities made him somewhat of an outcast in his early adulthood, grew up in California and after finishing high school enrolled in Reed College in Portland, Ore. His foray into advanced formal schooling didn’t last long. He dropped out after a semester.

“All of my working-class parents’ savings were being spent on my college tuition. After six months, I couldn’t see the value in it,” he said at a Stanford University commencement address in 2005. “I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out.”

His career in technology started inauspiciously. When he returned to California in 1974, Jobs worked for video game maker Atari and attended meetings of a local computer club with Steve Wozniak, a high school friend who was a few years older.

Wozniak’s homemade computer drew attention from other enthusiasts, but Jobs saw its potential far beyond the geeky hobbyists of the time. The pair started Apple in Jobs‘ parents’ garage two years later. Their first creation was the Apple I _ essentially, the guts of a computer without a case, keyboard or monitor.

His ascent into fortune and technological superstardom was swift.

The Apple II, which hit the market in 1977, was their first machine for the masses. It became so popular that Jobs was worth $100 million by age 25. Time magazine put him on its cover for the first time in 1982.

But his rise wasn’t without controversy. Three years earlier, during a visit to the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, Jobs again spotted mass potential in a niche invention: a computer that allowed people to access files and control programs with the click of a mouse, not typed commands. He returned to Apple and ordered the team to copy what he had seen.

It foreshadowed a propensity to take other people’s concepts, improve on them and spin them into wildly successful products. Under Jobs, Apple didn’t invent computers, digital music players or smartphones _ it reinvented them for people who didn’t want to learn computer programming or negotiate the technical hassles of keeping their gadgets working.

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