What Apple and Twitter Can Learn from Microsoft

Last Updated Apr 15, 2010 12:31 PM EDT

What can Microsoft (MSFT) teach Apple (AAPL) and Twitter? The notion may seem crazy. After all, Apple enjoys wild financial success and products such as the iPhone and iPod that have stellar consumer appeal. (The jury is still out on the iPad.) Twitter now boasts of over 105 million members and is a driving force in social media. But the two companies have something other than success in common: problems with developers. And that's one area where Microsoft truly excels.

Over the years, and especially with its Windows operating system, Microsoft learned the value of owning platforms that attract independent developers. The company has made plenty of mistakes, ranging from developer allegations that Microsoft stole their work to heavy-handed efforts to push former partners out of a market niche. Overall, however, Microsoft knows how to work with independent developers, give them what they need to develop for its ecosystem, and enable them to make money from their efforts. That includes the following:

  • Technology Roadmaps so developers know product strategy, and how to better target their efforts for an eventual financial return
  • Information to help them design more effectively for the platform
  • Marketing Programs to support developers when they approach customers and prospects
  • A Robust Ecosystem with many points of entry, so software companies can choose what best fits their business model
  • Flexibility and Patience to let the market decide what is true innovation and what is a waste of time
Third party developers can use Microsoft development tools, or not. They can sell through any number of outlets to reach a greater number of potential customers. A company can seek Microsoft certification of its software, or pass on the program.

In short, Microsoft gives developers what they need and then gets out of their way. As a result, the company has a software ecosystem of a size and depth that outstrips virtually anyone else.

In contrast, Apple and Twitter don't get it. Apple has increased the amount of control it exerts over iPhone OS developers, actually limiting their choices in tools and programming languages. That has already caused more obvious disenchantment from developers than I can remember seeing for quite a while. Furthermore, the constraints also make it harder for companies to innovate for the iPhone OS platform.

As for Twitter, it has churned up its developers as of late, who are now worried whether the service will put them out of business. The social network has bought applications or announced plans to develop and release features and software that put it into competition with third party developers.

As VentureBeat has smartly pointed out, there are multiple reasons why Apple and Twitter have gone the control freak route. To do so intelligently, it's important to remember that a platform is exactly that -- a place where customers and other companies can do whatever they want to do. The more control you exert, the more you reasons you give developers to look elsewhere. It's a lesson that Microsoft learned well and used to dominate the world of personal computing for years. It also something that Apple and Twitter would be wise to consider.

Blackboard image: RGBStock.com user hisks, site standard license. Photo manipulation, Erik Sherman.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.