What really makes the iPhone work isn’t the hardware. Sure, the glass—designed by Corning in upstate New York and manufactured in China—is beautiful. But the transformative part of the phone is the software. The code behind the touch-screen was written here; the iOS operating system was written here; most of the apps that we use are written here. Thousands of companies, in fact, have been started here to write apps for Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android. Software remains a great American expertise, and it’s only becoming more important as processors shrink into ever more powerful forms. As Marc Andreessen argued in the Wall Street Journal this summer, “software is eating the world.” Computer code is transforming industry after industry, and writing code is something that Americans are very good at. It’s also something that requires creativity, which isn’t fostered in giant factories with guards guiding people through crowded doorways and a central kitchen that roasts three tons of pork and thirteen tons of rice a day.
So perhaps there’s a different insight from Apple for Obama. Yes, there are industries where manufacturing jobs can be brought back to America through proper tax incentives and training programs. But maybe he should have talked more about the things that he could do to keep software jobs here. He spoke of federal funding for university and scientific research. But a real pro-software agenda would also include reforming patent law to stop trolling (and perhaps eliminating software patents altogether); increasing H-1B visas for highly skilled coders; stopping Congress from defunding DARPA, whose research helped create Siri, the iPhone’s talking assistant; and opening up the unused, federally owned wireless spectrum.