Edgar Rojas, 15, and Maria Morales, 15, both of Los Angeles, visit the Apple… (Mel Melcon, Los Angeles…)
To millions of Apple fans, it's less "cult of Mac" and more "cult of Steve."
At a time when chief executives of billion-dollar corporations are reviled for skyrocketing pay packages, golden parachutes and lavish lifestyles, Apple Inc.'s Steve Jobs was the giant exception — a superstar CEO so revered by fans that they followed his every move like a celebrity.
"He transformed the brand when he took over and made it into a kind of lifestyle that people wanted in on," said Hancock Park art director Adam Nathanson, 33, standing outside the Apple store at the Grove shopping center in Los Angeles the day after Jobs stepped down as chief executive.
"I don't know the guy who is taking over," said Nathanson, sadly. "I don't even know his name."
The shock among Apple fans was widespread, online and in person, even though it was well known that Jobs had serious health problems. In an age when people's work and recreational lives revolve so much around technology, Jobs was seen as the champion of making digital tools more humane.
"He's had a huge, direct influence on so many of the gadgets we use on a daily basis — our computers, our phones, our music players," wrote Leander Kahney, a blogger for Apple fan site cultofmac.com. "It's a nasty shock and a sad day."
A major part of Jobs' appeal may have derived from his story. Though he co-founded Apple in 1976, he was booted out of the company in 1985. After he returned in 1996, when the firm was in dire financial trouble, the hits started coming, including the iMac, iPod, iPhone and iPad.
"Cult leaders are born from great stories and Steve Jobs has the best story ever: a prodigy phase, a fall from grace, the return of the prodigal son and the phoenix rises," said Mike Mannor, an assistant professor of management at the University of Notre Dame. "Add that to his incredible charisma and a shroud of mystery, and you have an iconic oracle figure."
Mark Davidson, 45, an Internet communications strategist in Anaheim and faithful Apple customer for three decades, said Jobs might be irreplaceable.
"I'm not sure anyone else can create revolutions over and over and change so many aspects of our lives," he said, outside the Apple store.
Fellow 30-year Apple customer Jeff Zugale, 45, said there were other great tech leaders. Jobs, however, was special.
"I have the same level of respect for Bill Gates," said Zugale, a commercial artist in a variety of media. "But Steve Jobs is definitely more lovable."
Some fans, though also saddened, said they trusted that Jobs left a strong corporate structure to carry on. After all, the company did not seem to be much affected by his recent medical leave.
"He's stepped away for months now and the company is doing fine," said Lindsey Jacobson, 28, a stand-up comedian. "If Jobs was the only idea-maker, I would be worried. But I'm sure that place is crammed with idea-makers."
There were also Apple fans who went so far as to resent the consternation over Jobs' stepping down.
Javier Arbona, 35, a geography doctoral candidate at UC Berkeley, said the company was far more than one man, no matter how visionary.
"It's nothing personal against Steve Jobs," Arbona said, "but there needs to be some perspective. Nobody's talking to the folks working at the Apple factories in China. The marvel of these technologies also owes a lot to how they're made, where they're made and the sweat of people who make them."
A good sign for the company is that the recent generation that's grown up with Apple products might not be familiar with the rise, fall and rise again story of Jobs and Apple. For them, it's simply the products that reign supreme.
"I don't see Apple as just the person behind it," said Raquel Ovallos, 16, owner of a Macbook computer and several iPods.
She was at the Apple store with friend Kumary Vasquez, 16, who said she loved browsing through the company's products. Asked about the chief executive stepping down, Vasquez responded, without irony: "Who's Steve Jobs?"