With all of the attention on Apple’s working conditions in China, it’s interesting to know how things started. Long before the giant Foxconn plants, long before scandals about workers becoming suicidal and living in mass communal spaces, things were quite different.
Reading the Steve Jobs biography, you learn that Apple began manufacturing in beautiful, high-end factories right here in the USA. Indeed, Jobs was so particular about the look of the factory that he ordered the tooling machines painted specific primary colors, and the floors were so clean you could eat off of them. For Jobs, the cost of building and producing were less important than making the best product possible. If that meant that computers from Apple cost $2500-4000, or NeXT computers cost $9,995, so what?
When he ran NeXT Computer, Steve Jobs decided that his machines were too precious to be handled by slow, accident-prone, whiny humans. Only the machines really knew how to handle the machines.
To assemble one of his sleek $9,995 NeXT workstations, Jobs employed a robot workforce at his Fremont, CA factory that outnumbered his humans 13 to five, and could turn out a completed computer in under 20 minutes.
For Jobs, who had recently left Apple, this wasn’t about money: the cost of labor is only a tiny fraction of the cost of manufacturing computers at rapid speed. It was about quality. For a brief time, the 40-person team of engineers that Jobs dedicated to figuring out the manufacturing problem had more Ph.D.s than the group designing the machine itself.
It wasn’t Apple’s sole decision to start manufacturing overseas. It was consumers. Like you, like me. We saw computers selling for $1000, and wanted that. Apple’s products were seen as high-end for years, but after the iPod phenomenon, they started catering to a younger and less affluent demographic, and prices came down. Way down. In a world where a fast food meal still costs $3.99, people grow to expect cheap electronics, and companies deliver. While I would certainly like to see companies like Apple take up manufacturing in the States, it’s an obvious reality that most consumers would be turned off from paying double what they do for tablets and other computers. I’d like to think that I’d step up to the plate and pay a steep premium for American-made goods, but with the model the way it is, it’s hard to envision it changing anytime soon.
This isn’t to say that pressure shouldn’t be put on companies to improve worker’s conditions, but I think it’s important that consumers know they are just as guilty for cheap Chinese labor as the companies that make their products.