As American as ... Apple Inc.?

Apple is an amazing American success story -- but it wouldn't be nearly as successful without help from China

The good news is just pouring out of Cupertino this morning. Apple's quarterly earnings report was like manna from heaven for company shareholders: some $13 billion in quarterly profits. People are snapping up iPhones and iPads like hotcakes -- or rather, like iPhones and iPads wrapped in hotcakes.

As I write this, Apple is now the most highly capitalized company on the planet. With $419 billion worth of shares outstanding, it surpasses Exxon by a cool $5 billion (or approximately 50 million barrels of crude).

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But good news for Apple isn't necessarily good news for Americans. Yes, job growth has been steadily rising, despite a near total collapse of our economy three years ago. The tech sector has been a big part of that and will grow even more in 2012, according to Dice.com.

Apple itself added 8,000 new jobs last year, according to a recent New York Times investigative report that details how Apple manages to build such magical yet reasonably priced products. But for the most part, the company does it by building them in China.

Privately, Apple executives say the world is now such a changed place that it is a mistake to measure a company's contribution simply by tallying its employees -- though they note that Apple employs more workers in the United States than ever before.

They say Apple's success has benefited the economy by empowering entrepreneurs and creating jobs at companies like cellular providers and businesses shipping Apple products. And, ultimately, they say curing unemployment is not their job.

"We sell iPhones in over a hundred countries," a current Apple executive said. "We don't have an obligation to solve America's problems. Our only obligation is making the best product possible."

That may well be true, but that sentiment doesn't track well to the warm and fuzzy feelings most Americans have toward Apple. My guess is that most of those 8,000 new jobs went to low-paying positions in Apple retail stores or call centers. People who insist on "buying American" for cars and other big-ticket items probably don't think twice about carrying an iPhone in their pockets.

Why does Apple hire some 700,000 people outside the United States to build those magical devices? Because it can't find 700,000 U.S. workers willing to live in dormitories and work 12-hour shifts for $17 a day. Because U.S. factories can't turn on a dime the way Chinese factories can. Because the parts suppliers are all just down the road, not an ocean or two away. Because if it didn't, we'd still be on the iPhone 1, and that iPad would probably cost $2,000.

You might even say Apple is the most successful Chinese company in the world not actually based in China. Of course, it's hard to find an electronics manufacturer that doesn't rely almost entirely on components built in Asia. Even if the machines are assembled over here, it's generally made up of parts made over there. But Apple is such an extraordinary success that it has become a symbol of both what is right and wrong with this country. Per the Times report:

"We shouldn't be criticized for using Chinese workers," a current Apple executive said. "The U.S. has stopped producing people with the skills we need."

As Apple goes, so goes America -- for better and worse.

Is Apple's success good news for America, or not? Weigh in with your thoughts below or email me: cringe@infoworld.com.

This article, "As American as ... Apple Inc.?," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.

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