Malcolm Gladwell gets Steve Jobs wrong

“Malcolm Gladwell is getting a lot of attention this week for an article in The New Yorker in which he says that ‘in the eulogies that followed Jobs’s death, last month, he was repeatedly referred to as a large-scale visionary and inventor. But [Walter] Isaacson’s biography suggests that he was much more of a tweaker,'” Frederick E. Allen writes for Forbes.

“To support this view, Gladwell explains that Jobs lifted the basic idea of the mouse and the graphical user interface from Xerox, introduced the iPod five years after the first MP3 players appeared, and came out with the iPhone 10 years into the smart phone era,” Allen writes. “He also describes inventors in England who brought about the Industrial Revolution by making incremental improvements rather than grand inventions.”

Allen writes, “In making this argument, Gladwell misjudges both Jobs’ achievement and the nature of invention, I believe. By Gladwell’s definition, most of the greatest inventions would be tweaks. The Wright brothers hardly gave birth to the idea of an airplane. Dozens of inventors were trying to build kite-like structures with broad wings and engines to power them; the Wrights methodically gathered all they could learn from those others and figured out how to use a lighter internal-combustion engine and warp the wings for control to succeed far better than anyone else.”

Read more in the full article – recommended – here.

[Thanks to MacDailyNews Reader “krquet” for the heads up.]


  1. Malcolm Gladwell is well known for his own sets of “reality distortion fields.” This is but another example. Like Steve Jobs followers, Gladwell has a number of his own, known as “Gladwellians.”

    1. Howeve, this Allen guy is not quite accurate either with brothers Right example.

      At the time, a lot of people were trying to build the plane, and actually few did it at almost the same time as brothers Right.

      In some case Jobs imagines and built products that no one besides him actually was trying to build. No one saw that these products should be done and how these should be done. And even when Jobs released such products, most of “technology elite” would be in denial.

    2. This is par for course for Gladwell. His shtick is to take great individuals and achievements down a peg. The deceptive thing about him is that Gladwell’s points are vicious but his tone is non-vicious, as if Gladwell were simply making mildly interesting scientific or historical observations.

    3. Gladwell’s ideology is anti-thought. He calls it “thinking without thinking” but really it’s anti-reason, anti-rationality, anti-science and anti-brain.

      Its no wonder a guy like him would want to try and bring a genuine innovator like Steve Jobs down… the very existence of Steve Jobs disproves Gladwells bullshit.

      Its amazing that people fall for gurus like this.

      You know the mark of a fraud? They’re always telling other people how to live their lives and make a living as a guru.

      Steve Jobs was the real thing, and so its not surprising that he never published any self help books.

      1. Please enlighten us with how you believe or how you interpret Malcolm’s words or actions to be “telling other people how to live their lives”.

        I don’t think any of Malcolm’s points are irrational. In fact they are completely rational. Does it irk you so bad that someones opinion of “His Steveness” has been reassigned from “Batshit geniously insane innovator of our times!!!” to, “Tweaker”? Not prestigious enough for you?

        “You know the mark of a” crazy? They’re always defending their leader – right or wrong. You know, instead of examining facts as they exist and then calling them how you see them.

        I don’t think you have read any Gladwell books. From my readings, he’s nothing you say he is. Disagreeing with someone does not mean “they” are wrong. It simply means you “disagree”.

        Always interesting how people having done “zero” research think they know more than those who have done research.

        THAT is “anti-rationality”, and “anti-brain”.

        1. You seem to have taken someone’s opinion on someone else personal. Then you’ve resorted to calling someone crazy, slander their intentions.

          It seems, you are of the opinion that “Malcolm’s points are [not] irrational. In fact they are completely rational. Does it irk you so bad that someones opinion of “His Steveness” has been reassigned from “Batshit geniously insane innovator of our times!!!” to, “Tweaker”? Not prestigious enough for you?”

          Now why does it seem like, you yourself have been irked by someone not having the same great opinion of yours that the great Malcolm Gladwell’s points are rational? In expressing your dismay to this apparent heresy, you have even stooped to mocking a deceased person (“His Steveness”).

          “You know the mark of a” crazy? They’re always defending their leader – right or wrong. You know, instead of examining facts as they exist and then calling them how you see them.”

          Like you just did.

          Malcolm Gladwells points, in this case as a way of examine facts, are but littered with Base rate and syllogistic fallacies. If you want to examine all of them yourself, I’d invite you to print out his “opinion piece” and take it to someone versed with logic (any decent professor should suffice).

          One of the major omission from Mr. Gladwell’s premise is the understanding Steve Jobs’s output. He didn’t just invent/reinvent/discover/tweak/steal products or services but philosophy. Take his very first product with Apple I. His insistence (Kool-Aid if you will) against the prevailing notion of the time that Personal Computing is not a sustainable market. Everyday people don’t need their own personal computing needs, only specialised people should access the great mainframes via selected workstations. Computing technology were better off guarded by the hooded tech-monks and skilled tech-elites who won’t muck things up.

          Steve’s faith in empowering the “commons” was such that he sold his Volkswagen, RDF so strong he convinced Woz to sell his calculator and others to dive in to this techno-pirated world. And so, we’re still living in that dream. In a simile to that, perhaps, he (along with Woz and many others) are Prometheus with stolen fire, and Martin Luther with colloquial Bible.

          Once you start seeing things the way they really are, you start to recongnise that dent in your Universe. Philosophical mega steps like these are no simple tweaks. That’s not only gross oversimplification, it’s also a wrong characterisation.

          “Because they change things. They invent. They imagine. They heal. They explore. They create. They inspire. They push the human race forward…We make tools for these kinds of people.

          “While some see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”


  2. I think the transition from tweaker to visionary is a line that’s so fine that there are many shades of grey in between. There’s no doubt in my mind that Steve stands on the shoulders of giants in that if you trace the development of the Apple II back to its roots, the PC (used in its more generic sense) would not have existed without the genius of William Shockley who invented the semiconductor. And without software or code to run the hardware they’d all be dumb terminals. In that sense the world owes a deep debt of gratitude to the Manhattan Project for inventing the calculating machine to calculate the diffusion of uranium isotope through the gasifiers in the enrichment process so enough fissile material could be gathered to make a nuclear pile. In this the father of algorithms can be thought to be Johnny van Neumann, a brilliant mathematician who refined the punch card system that IBM used to calculate in what was a largely manual effort.

    And so on. This is known in mathematical jargon as the butterfly effect. Small incremental improvements in one field can have large magnifying effects elsewhere. Steve did not pretend to be an inventor. His particular brand of genius was to push the frontiers of technology in unexpected directions by introducing groundbreaking ideas such as the graphical user interface in the first Mac which had it not been invented, Bill Gates would still be pushing green screen phosphor dots at us today.

    Steve is a genius in his own right not on the scale of da Vinci who drew his own inventions but on the scale of Michelangelo who gave us the Sistine Chapel. In this his legacy is secure.

  3. The wright brothers didnt tweak an existing invention they actually invented many of the basic design elements of manned flight that we still use today.

    There is a fine line between integrating a better solution and inventing something new. I think Apple crossed the lines of better integration many times and invented new classes and types of products (ipad for sure) and re-invented other existing known products (ipod/iphone)

    I think its a bit of both with Jobs. Sometimes he was a tweaker and other times his tweaking led to inventing entirely new things.

    1. While it’s true that Pearse probably managed to get his machine into the air before the Wright brothers, it was far from controllable. He achieved one brief hop down a paddock and ended up in a hedge.

      It’s often not appreciated that the Wright brothers later made surprisingly long flights, using essentially the same aircraft as they first flew at Kitty Hawk. The credit for the first truly controllable aircraft must go to them, and not to my fellow countryman, Pearse.

      1. Which is the point they were the first to put controlled flight into action though that was only barely the case on their first attempt. Almost all inventions are thus. Watt didnt invent teh steam engine yet many of his inventions to make it practical are in use today Benz didnt invent the car but certainly made it more practical etc etc and edison in no way invented the light bulb but only helped make it practical and patented that factor when others hadn’t bothered because they thought the concept unpatentable given that light bulbs had been around for decades. Its making things practical that is the real genius and of course the timing and infrastructure.

  4. Gladwell is a subtle racist. I have read and enjoyed two of his books, and introduce racial bias about the last quarter. His agenda is not just a classification of thoughtprocesses, but the inherent bias of white people. Bias occurs throughout ALL classifications. Reasoning, critical thinking by a more thorough evaluation of what we (humans) have classified, can and do take us beyond inherent bias. Gladwell seems to think that all “white” thinking is incapable of doing so. The guy’s a twit. He can write, I’ll give him that. Still a bigot with an agenda.

    1. He admits in his books that evidence he gathered from taking the implicit attitude tests show that, yes, he has inherent bias towards whites. And that is exactly his point. Gladwell is part black, part white, and is as liberal and accepting of others as any, and yet still shows a bias towards whites. This is not the same as racism as this is not a belief to justify discrimination against a person due to race, but a subconscious tendency, an innate bias, to select based on experience. I think you missed what Gladwell was trying to say.

      1. This is correct. Science showed in the “Implicit Association Test” that the vast majority of IAT test takers, including African Americans, show a pro-white bias.

        Are black people subtle racists? Why then, according to the study, do they show a pro-white bias?

        Don’t be so hasty master hobbit!

  5. Steve Jobs and Woz invented Apple and Steve carried Apple to where it is today. That’s HUUUUUGE in my book and one of the biggest creations in modern time. All the little things like Macs, iDevices, and the OSes are small things. All of the IP, and invention are smaller things but relevant and important in their own regard but Apple is the best invention of them all.

  6. Steve Jobs never claimed to be an inventor. He credits Xerox with the Mouse, Woz with the Apple, Jonny Ive for design, etc. He was known to take credit for *recognizing* great products (and more importantly what is not) and was famous for his “I’ll know it when I see it” arguments with co-workers. Jobs was clear about this and never covered it up, so I’m not quite sure what this idiot from Forbes thinks Gladwell is so wrong about.

    1. Xerox didn’t invent the mouse and Steve never said it did. The mouse was first previewed at Stanford Research and the film of that intro is often shown to Apple Engineers. I know, my team was shown it.

  7. Malcolm Gladwell is not being at all original. Look at any on-line discussion about Apple and there is always a shitty little troll who feels obliged to insist that Steve Jobs stole the mouse from Xerox etc.

    They do it to attract attention to themselves because they have never done anything original in their lives and never will.

    1. Al Gore? Idiot, Sir Tim Berners-Lee is acknowledged as the invented of the Internet:
      “Sir Timothy John “Tim” Berners-Lee, OM, KBE, FRS, FREng, FRSA (born 8 June 1955[1]), also known as “TimBL”, is a British computer scientist, MIT professor and the inventor of the World Wide Web. He made a proposal for an information management system in March 1989[2] and on 25 December 1990, with the help of Robert Cailliau and a young student at CERN, he implemented the first successful communication between a Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) client and server via the Internet.[3]”
      He used a computer from NeXT, Steve Job’s company, because PC’s of the time were incapable of running the code.
      Get your facts straight.

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