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Tim Chambers

Tim Chambers

Posted: September 26, 2009 09:15 AM

Apple's Lesson -- Innovating Our Way Out of the Recovery From Hell

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"We decided to innovate our way through this downturn, so that we would be further ahead of our competitors when things turn up."

The "downturn" was not the Great Recession of 2008. It was the 2001 recession that was fading (after about three years) at the time these words were said. The speaker was Steve Jobs and the "innovations" included the iTunes Store, which had just launched eight months earlier.

220 million iPods, 30 million iPhones, 8.5 billion songs sold, 1.8 billion mobile apps downloads later it's easy to miss that the foundation for all of that was set during the darkest part of the 2000s downturn. When many companies were retracting fearfully, and while dot-com companies were exploding like evil pinatas.

I thought about that old quote as Steve Jobs triumphantly returned (after a liver transplant) to the public stage, looking weathered, but happy. He was in his element: showing off new candy-colored camera enabled iPod Nano's, poised to enter another new category for Apple, the home camcorder marketplace.

What we've just faced makes the dot-com recession look quaint. We came as close as one could to complete economic meltdown. As it became clear what we were facing, then President Bush summed up the state of the US financial system in a perfectly Bushian phrase: "This sucker could go down."

Later, as President Obama was first proposing the emergency stimulus -- to act as a sort of national defibrillator -- conservative friends of mine emailed me, panicked. They wrote: "What the Hell is Obama thinking? You can't spend your way out of an economic collapse!" I replied with something entertainer and libertarian Penn Jillette wrote. He too was worried, but admitted that the spending might be needed, and that sometimes metaphorically you have to steer the car into the skid to regain control.

We as a country were scared and didn't know if we were, in Jillette's words "turning into a skid" or "accelerating into a concrete wall."

All the sturm and drang over the stimulus has become somewhat academic. Thankfully, we're seeing the beginnings of good news. Most economists say that the Great Recession is over and the early stages of recovery are at hand, and the stimulus seems to be working as Obama promised -- as a buffer against deeper pain and loss until the recovery can really kick in. Even Google search patterns are showing this. But economists also agree that recovery will feel less like a weight lifted, and more like a slow march out of a deep and wide crater. So we've escaped the Abyss and the Recession from Hell, how do we navigate the Recovery from Hell?

The answer I suggest -- for the entire country -- is the same as it was in 2000 for a pre- iTunes and pre-iPod Apple Corporation: we innovate our way out.

America is a generative, innovative nation all the way down to our DNA. In the technology sector, but in all sectors(including governance) innovation will be our north star as we rebuild a 21st century new, new economy. Obama quotes Lincoln at the drop of a hat, but mostly with cause. On several occasions talking about our economic path forward, Obama alluded to wisdom from Lincoln's second State of the Union Address:

"The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew."

In other words: Think Different.


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