‘Made in USA’ by Paul Graham

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Society
November 24th, 2004 • 7:53 am

This is an interesting article by writer Paul Graham (author of Hackers & Painters) on America and man-made stuff — from cars to cities to computer software.

It uses Apple as an example of a company that has managed to strike a balance between the “quick and dirty” approach that prevails in American manufacturing and the attention to detail and style that is more often associated with European and Japanese companies.

Interestingly, one of the assumptions of the essay is that America is particularly good at certain things, like making movies and software. If world dominance is a measure of goodness, then yes, I guess America is the leader in these fields. But I am not convinced that it means much about the intrinsic quality of America’s movie and software products.

The special thing about software is that America has both the largest software company (Microsoft) and the best one (Apple). This ultimately does make America the world leader in the software industry, but only because Apple has managed to survive against the Microsoft near-monopoly, through the unique hardware/software combination that it offers.

Movies are a different story altogether. There’s no denying that American movies have the lion’s share of the world market, but I am far from convinced that this because America is “good at” making movies. They are good at making movie products — and that’s a completely different thing. Artistically speaking, the overall value of America’s production over the past century or so is rather debatable.

A better example would probably have been music. Here again, just like in the software industry, America is the world leader in both quantity and quality. In both industries, it’s actually still possible to create high quality products without a huge upfront investment. In other words, there is still room for individual or small group creativity. That’s the key.

2 Responses to “‘Made in USA’ by Paul Graham”

  1. ssp says:

    I’d say that all this is highly debatable. Starting from the claim that Apple are the best software makers (is their software the best? are they a software maker? or just making a lot of money from a hardware monopoly to make that software? and so on)…

    … to the comparison with the music industry. Sure, the US play a role in the music industry. But there’s also a huge ‘global’ influence coming from the UK and lots of local bands and record labels. Admittedly those may be small and the marked is distorted in a strange way (i.e. with many German or other non-English speaking bands singing in English). Of course people are unlikely to know about them in the US, but that’s their problem.

    And back to the computer company example… my explanation for this would have been that US companies may have started working on that market earlier than others and thus occupied it. It would be rather hard to start a completely new software company now (being either doomed to die or to be bought if you’re doing anything important).

    And yet, in a non-business way, the whole Linux thing started and turned into a global something.

    Finally, it’ll probably be interesting to watch what’s going to happen in China. They could have the chance of building their own computer systems as they may be able to keep their market from being dominated by the existing big players from the start.

  2. Pierre Igot says:

    Everything is debatable :). I define “the best software maker” as the company that makes the best software. I don’t care how they do it, but I think it’s fairly obvious that no other company out there can match the consistent quality of Apple’s software. It’s not perfect, far from it, but it’s so much better than the rest…

    The music industry is, of course, a global one. But the fact remains that every major musical breakthrough of the past century or so has come from the US: jazz, blues, rock’n’roll, funk, soul, etc. Of course, the US has also produced and is still produced lots of crap. And of course other countries are producing lots of good music as well. But on the whole…

    I am not too hopeful about China… I don’t see enough individual freedom to foster the kind of creativity that’s needed…

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