"Platform" may be the most overused and misunderstood word in tech. Nondescript and colorless, it refers to anything that runs or enables software. Operating systems, PCs, servers, even smartphones; they're all platforms.

We techies place faith in platforms because we know from the success of Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) Windows that the next great platform could be a millionaire maker.

The Windows of mobile over Windows Mobile
Among smartphones, Nokia's (NYSE:NOK) Symbian operating system has long held the lion's share of the market. But that's changing:

Mobile Operating System

Q3 2008 Shipments

% Market Share

Q3 2007 Shipments

% Market Share

Symbian

18.583 mil.

46.6%

21.219 mil.

68.1%

Mac OS X

6.899 mil.

17.3%

1.107 mil.

3.6%

BlackBerry OS

6.051 mil.

15.2%

3.298 mil.

10.6%

Windows Mobile

5.425 mil.

13.6%

3.797 mil.

12.2%

Linux

2.028 mil.

5.1%

1.361 mil.

4.4%

Others

0.862 mil.

2.2%

0.372 mil.

1.2%

Source: Canalys.

Look at how Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) is mirroring its success in the PC market by eating away at Symbian, here. Research In Motion (NASDAQ:RIMM) is, too, but the iEmpire's superhuman leap up the charts is more impressive. And it could have as much to do with the iPhone being an (ahem) "platform" as anything else. Here's a look at the software programs available for each of these mobile OSes:

Mobile Operating System

Applications

Symbian

9,834

Mac OS X

6,000+

BlackBerry OS

Unknown

Windows Mobile

18,000 +

Sources: Company reports, TMF research.

Anecdotally, there's evidence of a huge number of add-ons for RIM's BlackBerry. Yet, it appears that very few are sanctioned and available at the company's website. That’s an issue, trade magazine CIO reports. "Today, there's no central repository for BlackBerry applications, save for a page on BlackBerry.com that lists officially sanctioned applications. However, not all of those apps can be downloaded directly to a handheld from the page. Desktop computers and RIM's Desktop Manager Software are required to install some apps, which complicates the acquisition process," writer Al Sacco explained in an early October post.

Fair enough. But digital dealers are out there for CrackBerry addicts. Symbian's no slouch, either, having recently reported 25% growth in its available apps. And Microsoft has a huge footprint. What's so groovy about the App Store?

Just this: The App Store today has at least 500 more applications than it did when Apple reported earnings on Oct. 21. On that day, CEO Steve Jobs said that the App Store contained "more than 5,500 applications," and that the uptake for iPhone software was unlike anything he and his team had ever seen.

Mr. Mac is beginning to look like Mr. Softy
Can you blame him? The math is incredible; 500 applications in 30 days equals 16 new software programs each day. No doubt much of this code won't interest users. But some will. Some will even be game changing. Here are two applications that I believe meet that description:

  1. Orb. Nokia has for years toyed with bringing live TV to mobile devices. EchoStar last year bought Sling Media and its rebellious Slingbox for a similar purpose. But now, if Orb has its way, iPhoners will have live TV pretty much whenever they want it. Orb streams video from -- irony alert! irony alert! -- a Windows PC. Anything stored or accessed on your PC can be broadcast to the iPhone, including YouTube videos, movies, or -- if your PC has a TV tuner -- live programming, VentureBeat reports. That's a massively disruptive idea in that it could, if widely adopted, bring AT&T's (NYSE:T) 3G network to its knees. (Apple has banned other streaming applications for similar reasons.)
  2. Google Voice Search. Is there anything that DoubleGoo can't do? Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Mobile App is so rich that it makes me wonder. And that was before it had voice search -- a feature so slick, so well designed, that it feels like it came from Apple. The interface is simple: Press "voice search," put the handset to your ear, and speak your request at the prompt. Even my tech know-nothing three-year-old was impressed.

There's also Flash. More a technology than an application, Adobe's (NASDAQ:ADBE) Flash is vital in that it's frequently used to animate some of the Web's most highly-trafficked sites. Apple hasn't exactly been quick to adopt Flash because of its similarly styled QuickTime software. But now it could be coming in from the cold. This week, Adobe's Chief Technology Officer, Kevin Lynch, confirmed that the iPhone would soon be Flash-ready. (Barring approval from Apple.)

Windows became what it is today because of developers. Now, a decade later and on a new platform, it's Apple and the iPhone that the coders crave.

Apple is a Stock Advisor selection. Nokia and Microsoft are Inside Value picks. Google is a Rule Breakers recommendation. Try any of these market-beating services free for 30 days. There's no obligation to subscribe.

Fool contributor Tim Beyers had stock and options positions in Apple and Google and a stock position in Nokia at the time of publication. The Motley Fool's disclosure policy likes to crank call other disclosure policies.