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The future of Apple, Google, and Microsoft is...already here

Often we miss the clues as to what big vendors are planning by failing to analyze what they've already shipped.

We like to ascribe secret designs--nefarious and otherwise--to software vendors. Super-secretive Apple, in particular, tends to excite endless rumor-mongering as to what it's up to. It seems to me, however, that Apple and its top competitors, including Google and Microsoft, are increasingly transparent about their plans. We simply don't pay attention to the signs.

Let's start with Apple. The big rumor at present is the company's alleged work on a tablet computer, kicked off by The Wall Street Journal's bold declaration that "people familiar with the situation" suggest Apple is working on "a new touch-screen gadget."

While the rumor may be true, it's highly unusual for anyone "familiar with the situation" of anything at Apple to talk about it. After all, the punishment for divulging confidential Apple information is death. Or worse: the icy glare of Steve Jobs.

But we don't really have to look to rumors for this one. As Cult of Mac reports, Snow Leopard includes a range of functionality--including a full-size virtual keyboard--that makes a lot of sense on a touch-screen device (one bigger than an iPhone).

Conclusive? Nah. But a very good sign of what Apple is thinking.

Google actually goes one step further. Google announced Chrome OS in early July, but it's not waiting for a magical unveiling moment. Instead, Google watchers think that they know exactly what Chrome OS will be like...because we already have it:

If you use Google Chrome and Google's web applications, then you're already running Google Chrome OS. Just maximize Google Chrome's window and imagine that each tab is an instance of an application.

Perhaps Google is more open than most because it increasingly works with open-source code and communities, and secrecy doesn't exactly lend itself well to fostering either of those, but still....

Even Microsoft, that reputed bastion of secret monopolistic plans, is pretty open about future product direction. For example, Steve Ballmer has called SharePoint Microsoft's "next big operating system". This may not mean much to many, but it speaks volumes about Microsoft's desire to marry its personal computer dominance to cloud and/or server-based computing.

Want to see where Microsoft thinks computing is going? Yes, you can read the documentation on Azure, but you'd find a much more tangible example by installing SharePoint.

Perhaps we should spend less time guessing at what such leading vendors may announce, and instead take a closer look at what they've already released. The clues are often hidden in plain sight.

This may herald a new era of transparency, as technology success increasingly depends upon community outreach, outreach that requires the ability to handle code in advance of a general release. Or it may simply signal the fact that it's very hard to keep secrets in any industry, much less the software industry, particularly when success depends more upon execution than whizbang innovation.

Follow me on Twitter @mjasay.