Osteoblasts are the skeletal cells responsible for synthesis, deposition and mineralization of the extracellular matrix of bone. By mechanisms that are only beginning to be understood, stem and primitive osteoprogenitors and related mesenchymal precursors arise in the embryo and at least some appear to persist in the adult organism, where they contribute to replacement of osteoblasts in bone turnover and in fracture healing. In this review, we describe the morphological, molecular, and biochemical criteria by which osteoblasts are defined and cell culture approaches that have helped to clarify transitional stages in osteoblast differentiation. Current understanding of differential expression of osteoblast-associated genes during osteoprogenitor proliferation and differentiation to mature matrix synthesizing osteoblasts is summarized. Evidence is provided to support the hypothesis that the mature osteoblast phenotype is heterogeneous with subpopulations of osteoblasts expressing only subsets of the known osteoblast markers. Throughout this paper, outstanding uncertainties and areas for future investigation are also identified.