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Strange symbiosis among Apple, Microsoft, and open source

For all the fighting that goes on among rival technology camps, the reality is that competitors like Apple and Microsoft need each other.

For all the rancor between opposing technology camps--Microsoft vs. the open-source community, Apple vs. Microsoft, etc.--there's a lot more symbiosis going on than meets the eye. In fact, it's hard to imagine Apple without Microsoft, open source without Microsoft, and so on, as Harry McCracken suggests in MacWorld (not online at time of writing).

PC users...have long benefited hugely from the existence of Macs. Microsoft and PC manufacturers have cribbed so many of Apple's good ideas that it's tough to imagine what Windows machines would look like today if the Mac had never existed.

For years, however, that debt went largely unpaid. The PC platform finally started giving back in 2006, when the first Intel-based Macs shipped and the Mac essentially became a PC--and a really good one at that. Intel's mammoth investments in chips are sustainable only because its processors end up in most of the world's Windows PCs. Mac users reap the same technological windfall even though it's the Windows majority that provides the economies of scale.

Of course, Microsoft also propped up Apple's waning fortunes back in 1997 with a $150 million investment and, more importantly, a commitment to build Mac versions of Office and Internet Explorer. Without Microsoft's software on Apple's machines, they arguably would have been much less palatable to the general public.

Not that these two companies are alone in their curious symbiosis. For example, where would open source be without Microsoft? After all, it is Microsoft that helped to create a standardized hardware platform (Intel) for both "desktops" and servers, which paved the way for Linux, but it is also Microsoft that consistently sets the bar, at least on the "desktop," that open-source projects strive to meet and exceed.

Microsoft, in turn, owes a growing debt to open source, and is increasingly getting involved with open source, most recently releasing an open-source software development kit for Bing to help developers write Mac OS X and Cocoa Touch (iPhone) applications. Linux is pushing Microsoft to innovate again in the server and mobile markets, while a host of open-source applications, databases, and middleware challenge it on the Web, "desktop," and mobile.

Open source, whether in Mozilla's (Firefox) hands or Google's (Chrome), is also challenging Apple and Microsoft to innovate again in browser technology, which, in turn, Apple is enabling, at least, in Google's case, through its own open-source WebKit technology.

Strange world, technology. On the ground, there are ideological skirmishes between rival camps of customers. In the boardroom, plots are hatched to ridicule the competition.

But in reality, Microsoft needs Apple needs open source needs Google needs....You get the picture.

Follow me on Twitter @mjasay.