Short Take: Apple Warming

No one has studied this phenomenon, per se, but I bet if you surveyed the cellphone in the hip pockets of protesters against global warming, you would find that most have an iPhone. The same would likely be the case at a protest for pay inequality, even Occupy Wherever. So much for reading the box in which the beloved Apple device came.

Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China.

The New York Times tells of Steve Jobs’ dreams crushed by the failure to establish manufacturing in the United States.

Apple’s co-founder, Steve Jobs, had an abiding fascination with the tradition of Henry Ford and the original mass manufacturing of automobiles in Detroit, as well as the high-quality domestic manufacturing capabilities of Japanese companies like Sony. But his efforts to replicate either in California were examples of his rare failures.

Why the efforts failed isn’t clear. There is a suggestion that Americans were just not interested or very good at producing high-quality, defect-free devices, or perhaps they just couldn’t create viable manufacturing systems, but the upshot is that the iToys may have been designed here, but were produced elsewhere.

“We don’t have a manufacturing culture,” Mr. Gassée said of the nation’s high-technology heartland, “meaning the substrate, the schooling, the apprentices, the subcontractors.”

When the engineers had to go to the factory, they didn’t drive their Teslas, but hopped on a plane.

“When I started my career, all my flights were to Japan,” said Tony Fadell, one of the hardware designers of the iPod and iPhone at Apple. “Then all my flights went Korea, then Taiwan, then China.”

But what was it about these Asian countries that allowed them to produce what we could not?

So, the story of Silicon Valley’s success turned out to be the ability of a company like Apple to devise manufacturing supply chains that stretch all the way around the globe, taking advantage of both low-cost labor and lax environmental regulations. (Emphasis added.)

Without low-cost labor and lax environment regulations, would there even be a iPhone? Would it cost twice as much? Would it be half as good? Would anyone want it a phone replete with defects due to poor manufacturing?

The irony is that people won’t leave home without their iPhones, but are unaware, or perhaps ignore, that they are testaments to the very things they despise, the causes to which they will dedicate their time, effort and angst. They will carry them to protests for the $15 per hour minimum wage while they’re made by people paid a dollar a day. They will carry them to protest destruction of the environment while factories emit toxins and pollute the environment with abandon.

And if the factories that produced their iPhone didn’t enjoy low-cost labor and lax environment regulations, they wouldn’t have their iPhones as they now do. They would be too expensive or too defective. This necessary appendage to their very existence is dependent on the very things they despise. It’s not that they want this to be the case, but the reality leaves Apple, and its consumers, no other choice. The cost of an iPhone isn’t just paid by its purchasers, but by its low-cost labor and the environment. And users are okay with that.

Connecting these dots, which the NYT article neglected to do, is not intended to highlight the hypocrisy or naivete of iToy aficionados, even though it’s true. Rather, it’s to note that neither good intentions nor flights of fantasy alter the laws of economics any more than the laws of physics. It’s not to suggest that the causes aren’t fine, but that solutions to problems that ignore or deny reality are doomed to fail.

In the early years of cellphones, cell service providers used the Gillette Razor approach to hook us, giving away free phones to get us to contract for their service. Once we were hooked on cellphones, they pulled the plug on free and charged us on both ends, whereupon the cellphone manufacturers would market their wares mercilessly and we would be expected to buy new phones every two years, the old ones being uncool or failing by then. By then, we couldn’t live without cellphones.

Where did you think they came from? Where did you think they went when we disposed of them after two years? How did you afford them when you had crappy, if any, jobs? Yet, you loved them iToys so much and held them close as you marched for a better world in which you would have no iPhones.

36 thoughts on “Short Take: Apple Warming

  1. Joe

    Do you still use a flip phone? I’ve seen you post a picture of a flip phone on the Twitters, but I wasn’t sure whether you pulled a dead one off the shelf as a joke.

    I have to think that if the environmental vision I dreamed up in high school had been implemented, we’d all have low cost nuclear energy to power our devices. But, I decided not to run for class president and the world still struggles with the cost of energy and the doom of climate change.

    sent from my blackBerry® wireless handheld

    1. SHG Post author

      I’ve always been environmentally conscious, long before global warming was a thing. I recycled. I picked up other people’s litter. I avoided wastefulness. But I did so because it was my choice to do so, because that was the way I chose to live. I didn’t run around demanding that others live according to my rules.

      And no, I don’t really use my old Moto Razr flip phone, but I do use a 4-year-old smartphone, which is not remotely cool but works just fine.

  2. Karl Kolchak

    Along the same lines, people also ignore how deadly so-called smart phones are. Highway desths have been increasing at a rate of about 10% a year despite the number of miles driven being flat, and distracted driving appears to be the main cause. Yet try to suggest to people that for safety reasons all screen and phone use should be banned for drivers unless the vehicle is parked and they will scream about the imposition on their rights, never mind the rights of that pedestrian that just got run over because dopey just had to reply to dippy’s text right now. In fact, people are so adamant about the “need” to be connected while driving that they would force other people to buy driverless cars when they become available because it’s likely that such vehicles will not improve safety unless everybody is driving one. Forget whether those who make minimum wage could even afford to buy a new car to replace the 10-year old vehicle they are just praying can hold out for another couple of years, let ’em eat their old Ford Focus.

    1. SHG Post author

      Or not along the same lines at all, but a chance to vent your pet peeve because “so called smartphones.” I hear the night stalker is wreaking havoc at reddit and they need you desperately.

  3. Nick Lidakis

    “Why the efforts failed isn’t clear. There is a suggestion that Americans were just not interested or very good at producing high-quality, defect-free devices…”

    Steve Jobs was 6′ tall. That kid on the Apple production line looks at least 5’11”.

  4. Rxc

    Two more causes are never mentioned- containers and jumbo jets. The jumbo jets transport the chips from the fabs in the USA to the device manufacturers on Asia. Then the containers transport the finished product back to the USA very reliably and cheaply. If we still used the same methods we used 50 years ago, we would have much more manufacturing at home.

    1. SHG Post author

      The costs associated with shipping are less than the costs of manufacturing here, or it wouldn’t be financially viable. Do chips go by jumbo jet? First class or coach?

      1. Rxc

        The costs of shipping are so low because of containers. You don’t have to worry about longshoremen strikes or pilferage or ships sitting in the harbor waiting to be unloaded. They are highly reliable, secure, and cheap.

        Chips are almost worth their weight in gold. You can ship a lot of them, quickly and inexpensively, by air. There are a lot of fish and flowers that also travel by air, for the same reason, and because they are perishable.

        Before containers, transporting this stuff by the old break bulk method was slow, risky, and expensive.

        1. Rojas

          Way off in the weeds for SJ but that rosy scenario is an often repeated fable from MBAs. A lot of guys and gals got golden repeating this trope in the last thirty years.

          Strikes at the California ports in 2012, work slowdowns and stoppage in 2015 and the shutdown at APL prior to Golden Week in 2017.
          All these and more provided an excellent opportunity to discover what it cost to bring your products in via jumbo jet.

          Add 45 days to your supply chain for boat>rail>local truck.
          Consider the outlay for safety stock, what it’s going to cost for an engineering change, inevitable quality issue or shutting a customer’s line down due to stock out and explain again how this is a model for efficiency.

    2. Ayoy

      Yeah, and I heard the Chinese were a little bit smarter (on average) and ask less awkward questions of their employer.

  5. David

    Not sure why you direct your ire to iPhones. All the Android devices are also manufactured in Asia, be it Korea, Taiwan, whatever. And they command a much larger market share than the iFolks.
    Just sayin…

    1. Nick Lidakis

      The Apple device is just a placeholder. The device is not the point; it’s the principle and the basic economics. I know plumbers who adore the iPhone for its excellent video capabilities, i.e., documenting jobs before, during and after. But they don’t protest against the very thing that made their lives easier no matter at whose expense. They understand.

      I think that’s what Scott was trying to explain.

  6. Richard Kopf


    I love my iPhone and you will have to take it from my cold dead hands. You can’t slut shame me either.

    I just don’t understand why you hate smartphones made by foreigners. Don’t be a hater!

    By the way, I would tell you to dump AOL too but she-who-must-be-obeyed was an earlier adopter of that absurdly old service and she is mean to me when I laugh at her.

    All the best.


    PS. Given your love of watches, I highly recommend the Apple watch!

  7. Guitardave

    …a little off topic….(smack me if you have to..)
    I searched a bit and couldn’t find it…(scrubbed?) But a few yrs. ago I recall an article that researched and crunched the numbers on the end price increase of an i-phone if it was produced in the states…at current wages, regs and all. They determined it would only cost the consumer slightly less than $50 bucks more for a phone, costing the company 0. The way people get addicted to the damn things, i don’t think it would have changed things, as to there current ubiquity.
    As for the ‘defective’ part, there is no reason for the quality control to be any different there or here, so the end product would be no more or less reliable. BUT, as to the capacities and intellect of the average American worker, lets just say it might cost the Co. some $’s getting the scrap rate under control.
    My point is, i think it was purely motivated by the Max Profit School of Greed.
    $50 x Millions(Billions?) of phones….you do the math.

    1. SHG Post author

      Here’s the problem: not a single thing you’ve said is necessarily accurate, and yet you said it. What if every word is wildly wrong? Should we pretend otherwise and have a discussion about this utter fantasy as if it was real? Or should you restrain the impulse to write this and dive down this rabbit hole? See the problem?

      1. Guitardave

        Utter fantasy?….i don’t dream about cows, FWIW.
        google, technology review the all-american-iphone.
        I am correct about cost, if made here with foreign parts. I am wrong about why it couldn’t be done here. OK? But its NOT a ‘rabbit hole’….or is it for you, cause the Orange one said something about it?
        PS: Is it not obvious that the ‘slap me if you want’ was me saying, ” I know i should ‘restrain myself’ but what the hell? It’s not an “impulse”. I actually thought about it before hitting post. If you don’t like my penchant for occasionally not “restraining myself” , do what you must. I’ll live.

          1. Guitardave

            Check your facts. It was something Don and Bernie both blathered about at one point in the campaign. Did you even look at the article i didn’t leave a link to? OY!… I think i need to check out of ‘this here hotel’. The halls are too narrow, and the ceilings too low…and I got enough walls and ceilings to beat my head against right here at home. Have a nice Holiday, one and all.

            1. SHG Post author

              Your musical contributions are very much appreciated. Without you, this would be a cultural wasteland. So what if you took a dive down the wrong hole this time? Happens to the best of us.

            2. Sgt. Schultz

              Damn, dude. I never figured you for that pussy who ran away the first time he got spanked. Kinda puts a new light on your musical choices.

              Is that who you really are, guitarboy?

            3. Guitardave

              A. It wasn’t a “hole”. Again, please google the technology review article.
              B. I got a pretty good memory, and i don’t generally spew foggy memories or speculation as fact. ( one of the reasons i like this place )
              C. Yes, I am an ex-snowflake (musician version) and though i have gotten over 95% of the shit that used to piss me off, i still do get butt-hurt at times, like when i feel someone insults my intelligence….especially when its another sharp mind i respect.
              D. @Schultz; it ain’t the first time i got ‘spanked’…..those times i saw my error, and chilled. This time, i don’t see an ‘error’. Also, i said, i think, not i am, checking out. Ever had a “bad day’ sarge? … If ya want one, I’ll send Scott my address to fwd to you, and you can stop on by, and call me a pussy to my face.

              PS; thank you for the compliment, Scott. I do the SJ- DJ thing cause I’m to broke to donate. Call it an excuse or a fact, but trying to get sober when you got an arthritic, nerve damaged limb, (that makes it almost impossible to do the few things you love) no health ins….blah, blah, wah, wah, wah….ya just get REALLY pissy at times, in spite of the little voice saying…”is this the hill you want to die on?” The answer is NO…so I’ll not post words on those days…constant, but somewhat tolerable pain has a way of coloring ones thinking in a very negative fashion. I’ll shut up now, i gotta work today.

  8. Lee

    “Where did you think they came from? Where did you think they went when we disposed of them after two years?”

    Why, they come from the Apple Store (just like steaks, pork chops and whole chickens come from the grocery store). Any origin prior to that is incomprehensible to the average Millennial.

    Meanwhile, a Swedish study found that “in terms of equivalent CO2 emissions, a car with an internal combustion engine (ICE) can drive for eight years before it reaches the same environmental load as a Tesla with a 100kWh battery.” But Teslas are saving the environment, right?

    Someone needs to explain the Law of Unintended Consequences to these people.

    1. SHG Post author

      There was a segment on 60 Minutes last night about about plastics. One aspect involved recycling, which turned about to be half a really good idea. The other was about plastic in the ocean. The only thing missing was that no one has as yet figured out what to do with discarded plastics, so when and if they’re removed from the waters, where are they to go?

  9. Curtis

    In the 80’s I did factory automation in GM plants. I do not know anything about the taxes or the environmental regulation but, IMO, the lack of quality and high prices were a result of incompetence from both management and unions. There were lots of good employees but the system prevented them from succeeding. Bureaucracy on one side or another crushed good intentions and the best engineers left.

    As someone who has spent his career making high tech devices, companies do not really understand what they do well and what they do poorly. They have internal myths that reflect the past but do not change to match the current reality. They get around this by dumping manufacturing to foreign companies that keep current.

  10. David

    My, isn’t this thread lively ! Me still curious on the “ire” issue. Given I said iPhone when I should have said Apple, but Google will do for Android too. My heart goes out to guitardave whoes contributions I covet.

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