Friday, January 6, 2012

A "tweaker's" guide to real genius....

Am reading Isaacson's bio of Jobs right now - it's one of those great, can't-put-down kind of reads, a fascinating glimpse into the life of a man whose inventions literally changed our lives.

Concurrently, I've just read Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker review of the bio. And feel his characterization of Jobs as a "tweaker" is about as far off base as one could be.

To prove his point, Gladwell takes us to England at the dawn of the Industrial Age, pondering why England proved to be the center of innovation at that time:

"In an article published earlier this year, however, the economists Ralf Meisenzahl and Joel Mokyr focus on a different explanation: the role of Britain’s human-capital advantage—in particular, on a group they call “tweakers.” They believe that Britain dominated the industrial revolution because it had a far larger population of skilled engineers and artisans than its competitors: resourceful and creative men who took the signature inventions of the industrial age and tweaked them—refined and perfected them, and made them work.
In 1779, Samuel Crompton, a retiring genius from Lancashire, invented the spinning mule, which made possible the mechanization of cotton manufacture. Yet England’s real advantage was that it had Henry Stones, of Horwich, who added metal rollers to the mule; and James Hargreaves, of Tottington, who figured out how to smooth the acceleration and deceleration of the spinning wheel; and William Kelly, of Glasgow, who worked out how to add water power to the draw stroke; and John Kennedy, of Manchester, who adapted the wheel to turn out fine counts; and, finally, Richard Roberts, also of Manchester, a master of precision machine tooling—and the tweaker’s tweaker. He created the “automatic” spinning mule: an exacting, high-speed, reliable rethinking of Crompton’s original creation. Such men, the economists argue, provided the “micro inventions necessary to make macro inventions highly productive and remunerative.”
For Gladwell, Steve Jobs is the Richard Roberts of the Information Age - the "tweakers tweaker" - one of many men man provided "micro inventions" that pushed the productivity of the creations of true inventors:
"But Isaacson’s biography suggests that he was much more of a tweaker. He borrowed the characteristic features of the Macintosh—the mouse and the icons on the screen—from the engineers at Xerox PARC, after his famous visit there, in 1979. The first portable digital music players came out in 1996. Apple introduced the iPod, in 2001, because Jobs looked at the existing music players on the market and concluded that they “truly sucked.” Smart phones started coming out in the nineteen-nineties. Jobs introduced the iPhone in 2007, more than a decade later, because, Isaacson writes, “he had noticed something odd about the cell phones on the market: They all stank, just like portable music players used to.”
In the end, Gladwell writes, "...Jobs’s vision, brilliant and perfect as it was, was narrow. He was a tweaker to the last, endlessly refining the same territory he had claimed as a young man." To Gladwell, Jobs' contributions are simply refinements of existing tools; Jobs was a man who somehow (inexplicably) "tweaked" his way into the zeitgeist.

But he is so very wrong.

Gladwell is pushing 50. He is old enough to remember talking to a friend on the phone while twining oneself in the cable that connected the phone's receiver to the base in another room. Gladwell is old enough to understand that it was the original cell phones that were "tweaks" on Alexander Graham Bell's original invention (an invention that "was the subject of the most involved patent litigation in history" - seems that any true invention is something often claimed by many inventors.)

And he is right to say that in launching the iPhone, Apple focused its attention on improving an existing technology. In an article on the initial iPhone launch, Time magazine says:
"Cell phones interested Jobs because even though they do all kinds of stuff--calling, text messaging, Web browsing, contact management, music playback, photos and video--they do it very badly, by forcing you to press lots of tiny buttons and navigate diverse heterogeneous interfaces and squint at a tiny screen.
The iPhone, on the other hand, pushed the boundaries of what phones could do. Apple created a entirely new communication tool, one that combined phone connectivity with music, photography and video. Anyone who owned one of those original iPhones could create personalized set lists of favorite songs and take video of events as they're happening and post them on the web. He turned the phone, that communication tool once anchored firmly to the wall, into a revolutionary new tool for use in the Digital Age.


We saw the power of this "tweak" just this fall with the UC Davis pepper spray incident. Cell phone video taken by protesters showed a policeman calmly spraying pepper spray into the faces of students who were passively seated on the ground. With videos of the event circulating on YouTube, we did not need to see this event through a UC Davis communications blitz or via the Fox or MSNBC newsroom filter. We could see just the event and judge it for ourselves.

Now, thanks to Apple's innovative approach to phone technology, the whole world is indeed watching - but we don't need to wait for Walter Cronkite to explain it to us,.

Time says this about the initial iPhone launch:
"Perhaps it's not quite right to call the iPhone revolutionary. It won't create a new market or change the entertainment industry the way the iPod did. When you get right down to it, the device doesn't even have that many new features--it's not like Jobs invented voice mail, or text messaging, or conference calling or mobile Web browsing. He just noticed that they were broken, and he fixed them.

But that's important."
Yes, that's important. And to call the iPhone a "tweak" is like saying Hemingway "tweaked" novel-writing, or George Eastman "tweaked" photography. What Hemingway and Eastman and Jobs did was to revolutionize literature and photography and communication. In taking radically different approaches to existing forms, these men changed how we looked at the world.

You simply cannot say that about the first generation of cell phones, created and produced by people whose names we never knew, not geniuses we remember. 

In reading Gladwell's review, it's as if he feels compelled to "tweak" the existing hagiography of Jobs in order to make an impression of his own. In an article where the genius of Jobs is referred to only in the headline, it's as if Gladwell needs to diminish the giant in order to stand apart from the collective adulation of a true innovator.

Perhaps it is Gladwell who is the tweaker, not Jobs.

A read of Isaacson's bio is all you need to understand that Jobs was no saint. He was a confrontational boss, a conflicted parent, and a man who viewed much of the world as populated by "bozos." His insistence on perfection was imperfect, yet it was this insistence that led his teams to improve, innovate and invent tools that have changed how we work, how we listen to music and how we communicate with the world around us.

And in this age of golden parachutes, bloated CEO salaries and economic wreckage wrought by greed, Jobs was a leader who never forgot why he was in business - to innovate products in ways that enhanced the consumer experience, not just fatten his paycheck. Sadly, that focus on the consumer experience showcases Jobs' innovation in leadership as well.

In calling Jobs a "tweaker to the last," Gladwell is simply wrong. Steve Jobs was indeed a man who "reimagined the world."

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