What's that you say? I'm the one with no brain?
Look, Silicon Valley is in Apple's DNA. It's the company's birthplace. It's where Steve Jobs in 1984 famously launched the first Mac factory, a plant in Fremont he helped design to spit out one Macintosh every 27 seconds.
"This is a machine that is made in America," he said at the time.
It was a memorable moment. But my argument for bringing the Mac back is all about the Bay Area having the people and the proximity to Apple's headquarters to make the company's manufacturing experiment a success. This goes beyond sentiment, though even the most analytical are subject to the nostalgic pull of the company's legacy.
"I think it would be great if Apple brought its production back to the Silicon Valley," says Enrico Moretti, the UC Berkeley economics professor who this year published "The New Geography of Jobs," a study of why certain places generate certain kinds of work. "That's where it started. That's where it historically belongs."
That doesn't mean he thinks it's going to happen. And many
But hear me out.
First, let's look at what Apple CEO Tim Cook said earlier this month about bringing some Mac production back next year: Apple will spend $100 million on the initiative, which will be carried out by a contract manufacturer. (Think Foxconn and the like, but probably Foxconn.)
We can assume that the U.S. Mac factory is going to be a relatively small operation, given that Cook is talking about only a piece of a small slice of what Apple makes. (Annual figures: 125 million iPhones, 58.3 million iPads, 18 million Macs.) Let's stipulate that Apple isn't going to give up its enviable profits on the Mac to make the move, because you don't end up sitting on $121.2 billion in cash by giving up enviable profits.
Next, let's talk about Silicon Valley, in particular, as a manufacturing mecca. Sure, CEOs complain about what a tough place this is to make things, but actions speak louder than words. The valley has a bigger percentage of its workforce in the manufacturing sector than all but one other major metro area in the country, according to a May Brookings Institution study. (Wichita, Kan., with its aerospace jobs is No. 1.) The number of manufacturing jobs in the valley is rising modestly, fueled by small operations making highly sophisticated and early iteration components and products.
And Foxconn, Apple's go-to contract manufacturer, already has a significant presence in the valley, with large production plants in San Jose and Santa Clara and more than 550 area employees working on prototypes and testing and assembling products and systems for local tech companies.
Now, let's speculate as to how Apple can finally and cost-effectively pull off a move that it's been talking about for years. "One thing that Apple does, that the other guys don't do, they actually sometimes invent the manufacturing process," says Tim Bajarin, a Creative Strategies analyst who's followed Apple for years. "I wouldn't be surprised if Apple had an innovative breakthrough in manufacturing that they could apply in the U.S."
Apple, which rarely talks about its strategy, would provide no further details about the move on Tuesday. But we all know that Apple can cook up stunning designs and new ways of doing things when it comes to consumer products. Think iPhone, iPad and the original Mac, for that matter. The skill apparently carries over to manufacturing. See, when you're making things that no one else has ever made, it's up to you to figure out how to make them.
"They've had to sometimes actually invent the manufacturing devices, the actual machinery in order to do it," Bajarin says. The Mac initiative, he adds, "is probably a good first step to see if what they're doing could work."
And if that's so, it would be the best reason for Apple to build its new factory in the Bay Area. In product terms, I'm thinking of the U.S. Mac factory as a prototype, or at least as factory 1.0. When the robots and assembly lines start revving up and cranking out Macs, things are going to go wrong or at least not as right as they should.
There will be tweaking and rethinking and factory 2.0. Designers and executives in Cupertino will want to be able to zip down the freeway to check on their newest factory and latest innovation.
Among other things, a local Mac factory would serve the same purpose as the faux Apple store Jobs and then-retail chief Ron Johnson set up in a Cupertino warehouse before the retail concept launched. The two would meet at the faux store every week, Walter Isaacson wrote in the biography "Steve Jobs," and the Apple CEO would bring friends and advisers over for their thoughts.
"If there was some truth to that," Moretti says of the theory of an Apple breakthrough in manufacturing, "then, yes, that could definitely benefit from proximity."
In other words, under the right circumstances the case for bringing the Mac back to the Bay Area is a strong one -- whether you're a hopeless sentimentalist or a steely-eyed pragmatist.
Contact Mike Cassidy at email@example.com or 408-920-5536. Follow him at Twitter.com/mikecassidy.