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iPhone couldn't be created just anywhere

CNET's Charles Cooper rankled readers for suggesting that Silicon Valley is the only logical origin for the iPhone. The debate rages on.

Earlier this week, I asked whether the iPhone could have been invented anywhere but in Silicon Valley.

That question rankled several readers, who accused me of fostering a know-nothing ethnocentric view of the world. What about Nintendo's Wii or Sony's Walkman, Chas? Neither was made in the USA and neither has fared badly, to say the least.

One person simply summed up my question as "ignorant parochial drivel." To wit: "This is a global economy, and if you guys don't clue in to the fact that you need everyone else just as much if not more than they need you (because how many of your precious American workers would be willing to work for the wages and hours that workers in Asia do) as well as fix your education system and pay more attention to world benefit rather than self-serving gain in your foreign policies. It won't be long before revolutionary products like this are completely conceived of and created outside the U.S. As it is, most of their parts are created elsewhere."

Ouch. It stung even more because my interlocutor didn't understand that we mostly agree. Something may have been lost in translation, but I don't need to wake up and smell the "global economy coffee" to recognize the achievement of a talented cohort of transnational software designers, many of whom work in Silicon Valley.

With the iPhone--and most high-tech gadgets--the secret sauce comes down to software design, a field where the good stuff is akin to artwork.

As other readers in this space have correctly noted, the driving force behind much of the iPhone was not an American, but a Brit by the name of Jonathan Ive.

The more interesting question is why Apple enjoys a consistent qualitative design edge over equally brainy rivals in other countries. Critics can quibble, but the iPhone is a remarkable piece of work. I've seen lots of other smart phones, but nothing like this. When a colleague brought his newly purchased iPhone into the newsroom on Monday, a room full of otherwise hard-bitten reporters was reduced to a gushing scrum of starry-eyed goobers.

So how is it that a novice in the cell phone arena produces a technical tour de force the first time out, putting to shame the likes of Samsung and Nokia (and U.S.-based Motorola)? It's not like the handset makers don't know how to pull together the necessary hardware functions into a single unit.

At the risk of belaboring the painfully obvious, Apple does not enjoy a monopoly on brains. Steve Jobs quite obviously is a remarkable CEO, but does he deserve all the credit? Put Jobs at the helm of Samsung and would you get the same results? I'm not convinced you would.

With the iPhone--and most high-tech gadgets--the secret sauce comes down to software design, a field where the good stuff is akin to artwork. And this is where so many of the intangibles that we've come to associate with Silicon Valley come in. I put the question to Brad Meador, one of the principals at ClearContext, a San Francisco-based software developer, who said the answer boiled down to two basic elements.

"Listen to what the market needs and strive to meet those needs in as simple a way as possible," he said. "It's a little tricky because the initial feedback you get on a new software product is usually from a more tech-savvy, early adopter crowd, a group that's prone to lead you down a path of too much complexity for the market you're ultimately trying to reach.

"Software designers need to make sure that their products 'just work,' he continued. "Features that are buried in the user interface are unlikely to be used. Packages that require anything beyond basic configuration to provide value will lose most of their customers within minutes."

Where do you draw the line? That's a judgment call, the same as deciding whether to select one hue on a canvas over another. How a company answers the question separates the winners from the losers. You can't reduce the success of the iPhone to birthright or nationality. Yet the evidence is beyond contestation: Silicon Valley companies continue to invent the best software designs (though they often do so with the active input of foreigners who have chosen to make their lives here).

But nothing lasts forever. Everyone knows the best wines in the world always come from France. Everyone? That used to be true. No longer. Napa Valley now gives the vintners of the Old World a run for their money. If history's any guide, the clock also will wind down on the U.S.'s unrivaled domination in software design.

A lot depends upon an incentive system that rewards innovation, rather than achieving consensus or playing it safe. In a networked world economy, transnational skills go hand in hand with transnational corporate cultures. I don't know if it's entirely good or bad but globalization is elbowing aside the old ways of doing business in nearly ever corner of the globe.

So why should we be shocked if one day, the next software super-hit comes with a foreign accent?