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The New York Times reaches for new metaphors to illuminate the power of Apple’s platform

The U.S. interstate highway system is a “platform,” writes Steve Lohr in Sunday’s
New York Times
business section. “The more that people traveled it, the more opportunity it created for businesses and towns linked to its transportation network — and the larger the market for Detroit automakers.”

A Barbie doll, one of his sources suggests helpfully, can also be seen as a platform. Outside suppliers make outfits, accessories and toys for the doll, while online Barbie fan clubs help boost sales.

Lohr is reaching for these metaphors because he’s trying to explain to the Times‘ readers why Apple (AAPL) seems to defy a mathematical principle as inescapable as gravity: That it’s easier for a small company to grow at say 50% or 70% a year than it is for a large company.

But Apple’s accelerating growth curve defies the laws of gravity. It’s the world’s most valuable technology company — market cap: $310 billion — yet its revenues are growing like a start-up: 49%, 61%, 67% and 71%, respectively, over the past four quarters.

That’s the power of a platform that has struck gold — in this case, millions of iPhones and iPads attracting tens of thousands of developers whose hundreds of thousands of apps have made the iPhone and iPad even more popular.

Apple, of course, is not the only tech company to have built a successful platform. Lohr lists four: IBM (IBM), Oracle (ORCL), Google (GOOG) and Microsoft (MSFT) — “the platform-strategy master.”

What Lohr doesn’t mention are the risks involved in maintaining a platform’s dominant position: Two of the four companies he names have been hit with major antitrust suits.

Apple’s iPod/iTunes platform, it could be argued, already enjoys something like a monopoly position in digital music sales. And if Apple’s competitors don’t get their act together, it could be headed to something similar with the iPad/App Store combo.

Federal regulators have already sent several warning shots across Apple’s bow, over Adobe (ADBE) Flash, Google Voice and the exclusive AT&T (T) iPhone contract.

Apple is a big company now, with a platform that even Barbie might envy. It would be well advised to tread carefully in the future. The last thing it wants is to end up like IBM and Microsoft after the Feds got through putting them through the antitrust wringer.

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[Follow Philip Elmer-DeWitt on Twitter @philiped]