How many ways does your kid use his or her iPod? Let's see: It's an MP3 player, a photo album, a mini game machine, a digital recorder or laser pointer (with added apps), a calendar, and so on and so on. But you already know that. Here's a use that I bet you didn't know: It's a job-creating engine.
A study by researchers at UC Irvine (PDF) found that the iPod was responsible for creating nearly 14,000 jobs in the United States and another 27,000 abroad. And those numbers are a few years old. Given the age of the product today, the iPod may not be generating many new jobs, but think of the positions that have been created subsequently by the far more complex iPhone and iPad.
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What brings that to mind is Apple's claim to the title of the world's richest public company. At market close yesterday, the company's market cap -- the number of outstanding shares multiplied by their price -- hit $337 billion, surpassing that of ExxonMobil by about $6 billion. Think of it: A company that lives in the digital world, a world that only existed as a thought experiment a few generations ago, is more valuable as one of the world's largest oil companies.
But this is not just a case of Apple exceptionalism. It turns out that Apple is hardly the only IT company sitting atop that mountain of riches. Four of the six richest companies (also by market cap) on the planet are Silicon Valley giants. They are, in order, Apple, Microsoft, IBM, and Google. Chevron, that other oil giant, is No. 5, sitting between IBM and Google. Look a little further and you'll notice that Cisco Systems, Intel, and Oracle are among the 20 richest companies.
The number of people those companies employ worldwide is staggering: more than 500,000. Large as it is, that number understates the impact those companies have on the worldwide economy. Although just 18,000 people work directly for Apple, there are hundreds of thousands more working at companies up and down the supply, support, and distribution chains.
Despite all this, there's a tendency to dismiss the importance of products like the iPod and iPad as toys for yuppies. There's also a tendency to bemoan the fate of the American economy, saying we don't make anything anymore.