Apple vs. Google, or, Open Source as a Competitive Advantage

Leading up to the 1994 Winter Olympics, Tonya Harding’s ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, tried to break competitor Nancy Kerrigan’s knees, and the incident pitted the two against one another like Good vs. Evil: Nancy, tall and beautiful, dressed in white, vs. Tonya’s thin-lipped trailer-trash demeanor. Nancy went on to win Silver that year and an all-American heroine was made. Then she stepped in it, insulting her $2MM sponsor Disney when she said, regarding a promotional appearance she was obligated to make, “This is dumb. I hate it. This is the most corniest thing I have ever done.” America was shocked. Nancy retired from competition. David Letterman quipped, “what if it turned out that Nancy was the evil one after all?”

During the PC wars of the 80’s and 90’s, Microsoft and Apple were similarly pitted: Windows for PC black boxes, closed technology, apparently run by malicious, greedy men who wanted nothing less than to crush the competition and dominate the world; and Apple, brave, noble, enlightened, light-colored, toiling to free mankind from software bondage. To many Americans, the rivalry was on the level of Darth Vader vs. Luke Skywalker.

Fast forward to present. Bill Gates, alongside wife Melinda and Bono, TIME’s People of the Year. A visionary, a great man, the most generous philanthropist the world has ever known. Who could have predicted it? Things change quickly.

Google recently announced that its phone will be based on open-source technology, right down to the OS. Any programmer will be able to create applications, from social-networking applications to photo-share programs to multi-player games.

iPhone by contrast? Closed technology. Applications by Apple. Look at the thing: there’s no apparent way to open the device short of smashing it. What happened to the Apple of 1984?

What if it turned out that Apple was the evil one after all?

Apple’s reaction to Google’s announcement remains to be seen. Will they break down the walls? Or will Open- vs. Closed-source be the key difference between these new competitors? Do the best programmers Apple has stand a chance against a worldwide legion of independent developers?

Whether Apple prevails or consumers choose an open-source platform like the Google Phone will be revealed early next year, at the cash register.

– Andrew Morse