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The tale of Steve Jobs has long been a Silicon Valley legend. It was Jobs who, as a long-haired and barefoot twentysomething, set in motion the revolution called the personal computer by making it "user friendly" to the masses. Jobs didn't invent the machine; his partner Steve Wozniak was the real engineer. But Jobs understood before anyone else the key to transforming the computer from a geek's expensive toy into a household appliance. Instead of writing commands in computerese, Macintosh owners used a mouse to point and click on easily identifiable icons on the screen--a trash can and a file folder. Jobs also paired the laser printer with the computer, thus sparking the desktop-publishing revolution. "We started out to get a computer in the hands of everyday people, and we succeeded beyond our wildest dreams," laughs Jobs.
Jobs is intimidating at first. He has, after all, been portrayed as an abusive monster, and countless colleagues attest to his arrogance and intolerance. But now, even during the week of the highest stress he has faced in years, he exudes his other side: the Zen-like calm and the impish aura that make him so different from his arch friend and arch rival Gates, a man of competitive intensity and analytical rigor. This Jobs literally lopes into the room, and he keeps using the word golly. So O.K., golly, it's true that the famed "Reality Distortion Field"--that renowned Jobsian ability to bamboozle and bedazzle--still works, but it's a slower seduction these days, not a manic pitch. At 42, he may have mellowed, but as a motivator and marketer he still has no equal.
The adopted son of working-class parents, Jobs became a millionaire by age 25, an American icon by age 30 and corporate history the same year, all thanks to Apple. It would be easy to read his return--12 years after he was booted by the board--as a moment of sweet revenge. But for Jobs, who grew up idolizing the Hewlett-Packard ideal of an egalitarian workplace where ideas came before hierarchy, returning to Apple is something akin to rescuing a son before he loses himself to booze and bad company. There has been a literal deathwatch on Apple in recent weeks. It had sales of $9.8 billion last year, but revenues have dropped significantly in 1997. Losses have mounted--more than $1.5 billion over 18 months. Jobs prefers to see hope in the 20 million to 25 million users who remain. He even has a hard time uttering the D word. "Apple has some tremendous assets, but I believe without some attention, the company could, could, could--I'm searching for the right word--could, could..." He pauses and gives in: "die."
All last week, Jobs allowed TIME to follow him as he negotiated his detente with Gates and prepared for the Boston meeting, then headed back to California to work at what he calls his "preferred squeeze"--Pixar Animation Studios, the Jobs company that created the 1995 hit movie Toy Story, the first animated feature film made entirely by computer. Pixar represents pure creation, a whole new era of entertainment that blends good storytelling with computers. "It's so fun at Pixar," he says, reveling in his new role as Hollywood mogul on the make. Apple, on the other hand, requires heavy lifting. "It's like turning a big tanker. There were a lot of lousy deals that we're undoing."