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Apple and Our Conflicted Love Affair with its Gadgets January 27, 2012

Posted by Peter Varhol in Strategy, Technology and Culture.
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I hate participating in this particular discussion.  It’s one of the most emotionally charged that we face today in tech, and probably in society in general.  The New York Times reports that Apple develops its iPhones and iPads in Chinese factories where workers live in dormitories and work hours that Americans haven’t seen since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.  The pressure can be so great that workers commit suicide rather than continue along the path demanded by Apple’s product needs.

Apple claims that US factories can’t respond at the speed of business, and that it makes good-faith efforts to improve working conditions along its supply chain.  Oh, and everyone else does it, too.

You know something?  They’re both right, and the argument here is at cross-purposes.  But yes, Apple and Timothy Cook have a special responsibility here.

The problem is that Apple supports its fast response to market trends through business practices that no American would tolerate.  Yet it practices them in a part of the world where they represent a distinct improvement over past working practices.

I’m a believer, probably more so than most of my fellow countrymen, of the economic and intellectual value found around the world.  Free trade, and the ability to source for business rather than political reasons makes us better and wealthier in the aggregate.

I am not going to fault Apple for doing what is best for its business, and for taking advantage of the skills and unique value that can be found in other parts of the world.  The company does have the obligation to work to improve the practices of its suppliers, but it also has an obligation to its customers and other stakeholders.

The New York Times and others are right to point out that there is a cost to a larger world society for our infatuation with electronic toys.  That burden falls on all of us, not just Apple, but Apple is a very active and visible part of that culture.

Could Apple conduct business differently?  In one sense, it is doing just what its competitors are, only better.  But it has a position that enables it to consolidate and extend that advantage far into the future.  It is in a very cutthroat business, where one error of strategy can relegate it to has-been status within a year or two.  But that position also affords it a window of opportunity to create another revolution, this one involving US manufacturing, and manufacturing technology in general.

Ultimately, Steve Jobs (and Timothy Cook’s) assertion that American manufacturing can’t respond fast enough for its business is arrogant and unhelpful.  But it’s also a challenge to the US.  It’s not about waking up thousands of factory workers in a dormitory and feeding them biscuits and tea.  It can’t be, now and especially not in the future.  It simply won’t work after this relatively brief period of history.

Timothy Cook, if anyone has the power to single-handedly change manufacturing in the US to deliver business responsiveness within the parameters of our social covenant, you do, as much as Henry Ford did over a hundred years ago.  Do it, and don’t shirk your position of responsibility here.  You are at the pinnacle of American ingenuity; let’s see you say that it can be done.  And then deliver, as most of us believe that Apple is able.

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