I just read an interesting essay by Paul Graham which in his own words tries to explain why Americans make some things well and others badly.
His basic thesis can be summed up in two points, both of which are rooted in US society and cultural values. The first is that the US is good at those endeavours like writing software and making movies which are messy processes (because figuring out what the end result will be is as much work as making it) and innovation, and therefore speed, is important.
His second point is that Americans don't value good design and craftmanship as an end in itself in the same way that the Europeans or especially the Japanese do. It's the idea that there is some independent definition of quality determined by the craftsman as opposed to the market-based definition favoured in the US that if people buy something then it must be OK.
He quotes the example of the iPod as an exception to this rule. The thing that has always distinguished Apple from its competitors is its devotion to technical excellence which is a form of good design, often it must be said, at the expense of mass market success. But the iPod bucks this trend in the sense that good design, the fact that what it does it does so much more elegantly than its competitors, is the secret to its success.
Another example is TiVo. Here is a device that was clearly built by a group of people with a devotion to design. Every other DVR I've seen does fundamentally the same things but so much less elegantly that they are boat anchors by comparison. The end result is that TiVo owners don't just like their TiVo's, we love them. Unfortunately the jury is still out on whether the market will reward TiVo's superior design with financial success, or whether the cable companies with their third-rate bundled DVRs will kill it. I hope not.
Interestingly, in both the examples discussed above, the iPod and the TiVo, much of what counts as superior design is manifested as superior user interface design. Expect this to be increasingly important in distinguishing the leading devices from the also rans. Now that massive computing power can be provided in almost any device for a few hundred bucks, the real challenge is in making all of the complex and sophisticated functionality inside these boxes readily accessible to the average person.