Open source is an assurance of fair dealing and equal rights. It's reputation. That's a lot harder to maintain than a mere brand. What open source and the Internet have done is force reputation to the fore, threatening the flexibility of brand with daylight.
The central question driving consumer markets is brand. What usually drives the business market is reputation.
Apple represents brand. A brand is more than a picture and a slogan. A brand is an assurance of value and protection for the customer. (Picture photoshopped by Brandon Perlow of Spidermonkey.com for Jason Perlow of ZDNet.)
The American flag is a brand. It brings with it certain values, values worth saluting. The values themselves lie in the Constitution, and the brand can fall short while maintaining its value.
Apple is the same way, just like McDonald's and Coca-Cola. Buyers choose these brands because they fulfill expectations, they deliver what they promise, they are safe choices.
Google depends on its reputation. Reputation carries some assurances of a brand, but it's more delicate. Reputation can disappear (Tiger Woods) in a flash. Because maintaining your reputation requires credibility. It means you walk the walk, not just talk the talk.
Open source is not a democracy, it is an assurance of fair dealing and equal rights. It's reputation. That's a lot harder to maintain than a mere brand.
Corporate reputations mean a lot when businesses look to do business with you. Intel Inside is an ingredient brand based on reputation. You have an assurance when you align with Intel that goes beyond the co-op money. Reputation is a brand you can carry into a boardroom, that can sign contracts and stick by them.
Most of the struggle between open source and proprietary models this last decade has been about reputation and brand. Open source is about reputation. Small things that won't bother a brand, like changing your license to demand attribution, can destroy your reputation and must be walked-back in open source.
A brand can smile in public and conduct hard dealing in private. That's what Apple, and its branded content partners, have done with the iPhone and will do with the iPad. A brand is safe for children, meaning it follows the law rigorously, and enforces its own version to protect itself and its customers.
The question of evil is in the eye of the legal department with a brand, it's in the eye of the PR department with a reputation.
Reputation is more adult. It's less about value than about values. Google's work on TVs is of a piece with its decision to walk away from China. It really had no choice. It defined the term evil, it staked its reputation on the definition, and it would have lost that reputation had it acted differently.
A brand does business, in other words, while a reputation is more of a political thing. Barack Obama and Sarah Palin may appear to be brands, but they are in fact reputations. They could disappear tomorrow while their brands, Democratic and Republican, would remain intact.
What open source and the Internet have done is force reputation to the fore, threatening the flexibility of brand with daylight. I don't know how that struggle will play out, but it's fascinating to watch.
I know to many readers all this may seem airy-fairy, theoretical, over your head. So apply it to your own life. Think about what your brand means, what your reputation means, and how you would respond against threats to either one. Then put them in the talkbacks.