Developers! Developers! Developers! Can Google learn from Steve Ballmer to beat Apple in mobile?

Funny timing. Two weeks ago I wrote a piece about how “platform thinking” – using your business to help others succeed – can create massive value for your own company. A week later two of the most-admired platform companies in tech – Apple and Twitter – independently acted in ways that enraged their core developer audience. Whether these moves will ultimately undermine the power of their respective platforms remains to be seen. The only thing we know for sure: developers on these platforms have a new sensitivity to the power of the platform owner to control their destiny.

Apple’s moves – all related to the pre-release annoucement of iPhone 4.0 – were the most surprising. Apple and Google are locked in a high-stakes battle over the future of the mobile web – a fight in which independent app developers will play a significant role. With 85 million devices in circulation, Apple has a strong early lead, and developers have flocked to the iPhone platform to compete for consumers’ attention and wallets in the App Store. But with Google’s Android gaining fast, Apple used the 4.0 announcement as an opportunity to tighten the screws on its developer community and the supporting ecosystem of software tools and services companies that has grown up around them. Buried in the announcement about new software capabilities in iPhone 4.0 were a host of stringent new prohibitions on, for example:
  • Cross-platform development tools (like Appcelerator’s Titanium framework)
  • Third-party app analytics embeds (like those from Flurry and Medialets)
  • Cross-compilers (e.g, Adobe’s Flash-to-iPhone compiler) that allow non-native code to run on the iPhone
  • The use of location data for anything other than location-based offer (i.e., coupon) delivery
  • Etc.
In short, Steve Jobs used the 4.0 announcement to make it crystal clear to mobile developers that Apple plans to control every aspect of their participation in the App Store, and any developers or and vendors that pursue or enable “cross-platform” capabilities will be shut out with extreme prejudice.

Given its huge installed base and passionate core customer, Apple just might have the ability to pull this off (Scoble has a great piece up arguing the pros and cons), but in the meantime Apple has handed Google a golden opportunity to make love to the mobile developer community. This isn’t something Google has shown a lot of talent for in the past, but between Android and App Engine, it’s something they need to get good at in a hurry to have a shot at pulling off their ambitious vision of a free, open, interoperable and programmable web.

If they’re looking for a little inspiration, this classic Ballmer video is a great place to start: Developers! Developers! Developers!…