I was working on this when I read this CNET News.com post. Apparently, Bill Gates believes that a strong technology sector will help keep America's economy healthy. I couldn't agree more. But I have a somewhat different take on the role tech has played in the U.S. economy.
Over the past few decades, the U.S. technology industry has had a number of "the sky is falling" moments, and every time we've managed to work through it and come out stronger than before.
For example, when I entered the job market in 1980, my employer--Texas Instruments--was the world's leading semiconductor maker. But in 1986, NEC and Fujitsu took the top two spots. By 1998, Japanese companies held the top 3 and 6 of the top 9 positions and TI had slipped to No. 5. Intel was the only bright spot, climbing the charts from 10th to 7th place.
Fast forward to 2006, when U.S. companies occupied 4 of the top 10 positions, including No. 1 (Intel) and No. 3 (TI). Rounding out the top 10 were two companies each from Japan, Korea, and Europe. That's certainly more balanced. What changed?
Well, U.S. technology companies and their employees seem to have a knack for innovating. But we don't just invent technology; we also create and dominate markets. We don't just rise to the occasion when our economy is threatened; technology innovation and marketing seem to be innate strengths of our culture.
For example, Intel, Microsoft, and IBM together created the personal computer. Contributions from Apple, Compaq, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and others helped to make personal computing the most important product category in tech history.
Nokia may be the dominant cell phone company, but U.S. companies like TI dominate the chips inside, and Qualcomm invented CDMA--the competitor of Europe's GSM standard.
U.S. companies invented and dominate networking and the Internet. American companies invented the Palm Pilot, Tivo, and of course the iPod and iPhone. Except for Vizio, we don't make TVs, but TI invented DLP technology--the core of a new generation of HDTVs and video projectors.
It's surprising that we occasionally manage to out-innovate and out-market Asian and European consumer electronics giants like Sony, Samsung, Panasonic, and Philips.
First manufacturing moved offshore, followed by outsourcing of data and call-centers and even software and hardware development. But our unemployment rate has averaged just below 5 percent for the past 10 years, and it's not expected to change anytime soon.
When we're confronted with a challenge, we retool, innovate, create, and market. As an industry and with the occasional help of the government we also protect our intellectual property rights--one of the biggest challenges we've faced, and continue to face, since the early '80s.
At the end of the day, it's imperative that we continue to develop, nurture, and protect our human capital, our intellectual capital, and our venture capital. And not just in traditional electronics, but in biotech, nanotech, green tech, and energy tech.
Just as they say in the stock market, past performance is not a guarantee of future results. Technology is a treadmill that never stops or even slows; we can't either.
Note: a prior version listed Blackberry as an American invention. Research In Motion is a Canadian company. Thanks to Neal and sorry to all you Canadians out there.