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Is Apple 'open enough' to rule the next decade of mobile?

Open source apparently rules the day, but you'd never know it by looking at the most successful platform developers of the last three decades: Microsoft and Apple.

For all the discussion of the importance of transparency and openness on the Web today, it's very telling that the world's fastest-growing mobile platform may also be the most proprietary.

Apple wins rave reviews (including from me) on its technology but certainly not for its commitment to sharing its innovations with the world...unless, of course, you fork over $299 and sign a two-year mobile service commitment.

Indeed, Apple has earned the dubious honor of being more closed than Microsoft.

And yet, as Marc Hedlund reveals over on the O'Reilly Radar, application growth for the iPhone dwarfs that of the former leader in the smartphone category, PalmOS:

iPhone OS app growth vs. PalmOS app growth Marc Hedlund

If openness matters so much, why is Apple doing so well with its uber-proprietary iPhone, just as Microsoft dominates the desktop with proprietary Windows?

There are at least two answers. One is that while Apple's iPhone (like Microsoft's Windows) isn't open in the open-source sense, it is open in the sense that it's easy to create applications that run on it. The second reason is that there's a huge financial incentive to do so, given the momentum behind the platform.

For some, these reasons aren't good enough, such as Mozilla Chair Mitchell Baker:

Many of us participate in closed systems where the rules are set for us and we don't see them, certainly can't change them, and aren't permitted to "participate" in building the rules. This is true of very popular web services. For example, I "participate" in Flickr and Facebook, but within the system and rules that those organizations set up to meet their own goals. That's fine; there's no reason for those sites to change.

Mozilla is trying to build a layer of the Internet that's different, where "participation" extends to the very core of what we build.

With 40 percent of Mozilla's Firefox written by outside contributors, it's clear that an open platform works for Mozilla to build a better browser, which is why Mozilla continues to improve the ways in which developers can contribute to it. But it's equally clear that there are other ways to be "open to participation," ways that pay the rent for Apple, Microsoft, and huge ecosystems of commercial partners.

Is one platform approach better than another?

While it's clear that the world has room for both proprietary-but-open-enough and pureplay-open approaches to platform building, I favor the more open approach. The reason is that eventually, it appears proprietary approaches can collapse under their own weight.

Take Windows, for example. To maintain its growth, Microsoft has had to include more and more functionality in the operating system, stepping on the toes (or outright devouring the toes) of its erstwhile partners. (Interestingly, while discussing whether openness matters for Apple over Google Android, Slate describes Microsoft's Windows approach as open.)

Eventually, Windows grew to such heft that the market, including Microsoft partners, started looking for open alternatives, causing then Microsoft chairman Bill Gates to dub Linux Microsoft's "most potent operating system competitor." The "good enough" operating system that performed certain tasks much more efficiently and powerfully than Windows has now grown to seriously threaten Microsoft in a range of applications and markets.

Eventually, even Microsoft's desktop dominance may be threatened by Linux as new classes of easy-to-use, cost-effective devices like Netbooks arise.

Back to Apple. Today, Apple's iPhone seems set to rule the world because it enables a huge community of application developers to reach a paying audience. Tomorrow, however, Google (Android/Linux), Nokia (Symbian, Linux), Palm (WebOS/Linux), and even Microsoft (Windows Mobile) threaten its cozy corralling of the mobile market.

Microsoft has made it clear that it's possible to build a massive business with an "open enough" approach to platform development. The question is, can Microsoft (and Apple) maintain that without truly opening up?

Follow me on Twitter @mjasay.