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Steve Jobs More Tweaker Than Inventor, Says Malcolm Gladwell

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Since Steve Jobs' untimely passing a month ago, the former Apple chief has been eulogized in countless ways. He's been dubbed an inventor, a tyrant, an innovator, a curmudgeon, a soothsayer, and a petulant child. And that was just in Walter Isaacson's biography.

In Steve Jobs: A Biography, Isaacson explores the Apple guru in an unflinching, warts-and-all approach that paints a more flawed and humanizing portrayal of the man behind the iPod and iPhone. Yes, Jobs had an eye for the future and delivered designs and interfaces which the world took to almost immediately. But, as Isaacson points out, he couldn't conjure them out of thin air. He had to be showed them first.

In his recent piece for the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell -- the 'fro-bedecked author of Blink and The Tipping Point -- summed up Jobs' genius and expertise as that of a "tweaker." Rather than being the man to deliver products that were wholly new and original, Jobs tinkered with existing products and made them better. In other words, he didn't like existing media players or smartphones, so he rebuilt them.

"Jobs's sensibility was editorial, not inventive," Gladwell writes. "His gift lay in taking what was in front of him -- the tablet with stylus -- and ruthlessly refining it."

Gladwell compares Jobs not to James Watt, the inventor of the modern steam engine, but to those who took over his contraption after it was made and quadrupled its efficiency -- something he argues is "essential to progress."

"The visionary starts with a clean sheet of paper, and re-imagines the world. The tweaker inherits things as they are, and has to push and pull them toward some more nearly perfect solution. That is not a lesser task," Gladwell stresses.
However, Gladwell does not gloss over how prickly Jobs became when his vision wasn't realized, even when he couldn't adequately articulate it. He related the heated argument between the Apple chief and James Vincent who developed the original iPad marketing campaign. After it ran, Jobs curtly told him, "Your commercials suck." A tiff subsequently escalated, and Vincent demanded, "You've got to tell me what you want!"

Jobs countered, "I'll know it when I see it!"

Thankfully for the world, he had a knack for that.

(See also: Google Engineer Calls Google+ a Complete Failure and Former Google Exec Slams Company's Redesign)

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