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Apple: Simplicity taken too far?

Apple's tight control of its developer community is opening the market to open-source competition.

Innovation gets the headlines, but it's ease-of-use that dominates markets. From Microsoft to Apple to Google, the key to making billions is very simple: the easier technology is to use, the more people will buy it, provided the price is right.

A seamless experience...but at what cost?

Microsoft became the biggest software company in the world by creating an ecosystem of software that works well together. Google has upped the ante by reducing complex algorithms to a simple box that yields everything from search results to FedEx shipment tracking name it. Just Google it.

Apple, however, takes ease-of-use to an entirely new level, and has been taking some extreme measures to achieve its goal of making personal computing brain-dead easy.

As ZDNet's Jason Perlow points out, not only has Apple combined software and hardware into a seamless experience, but it forces developers to use Macs to develop for its platform, and even requires developers to learn its Objective-C programming language to write applications for its platforms.

This makes for an exceptionally clean experience for customers, but the more Apple burdens its developer community, the faster its community will be to latch onto alternatives, including open-source offerings and even Microsoft.

Despite Apple's uber-proprietary approach, there has been no shortage of open-source affection for the company's products, as former Red Hat marketing executive Chris Grams points out. But that might be changing.

I've heard a growing chorus of open-source voices shifting from Microsoft as (open-source) public enemy No. 1 to Apple.

One could discard such fulminating, except for the fact that Google (with Android) and other open-source communities are increasingly focusing on delivering open-source software that prioritizes ease of use, as Canonical's latest Ubuntu 10.04 LTS (aka Lucid Lynx) release shows. (Disclosure: I work for Canonical. Double disclosure: I didn't like the Linux "desktop" until Lucid's release.)

Apple controls a large developer ecosystem today because it makes easy-to-use products that consumers love. Developers follow consumer wallets.

But if more open alternatives arise from Google and others, Apple's tight rein on developers will have to be relaxed or it risks seeing its market evaporate, just as happened with PCs years ago. Back then it was Microsoft that took its innovations and ran with them. Today it might be Google.