Looking At Platforms

Earlier this year at the Enterprise 2.0 conference “platform” was the name of choice. Seemingly every company I spoke to was a platform player. It seems the latest “fart on demand” iPhone application is a “platform for virtual flatulence generation”, that the latest Twitter clone with negligible uptake is “a platform for global collaboration” and the maker of a time tracking widget is “a platform for enterprise efficiency and ROI generation” – I can’t help but rail against that and yell “enough of the platform already!”

One of the sessions at the conference included half a dozen or so vendors of microblogging products, true they all had various takes on the theme and offered different services, but they shared the common feature of providing microblogging. Somewhat surprisingly every one of them proclaimed that they were a platform. I couldn’t help but ask a somewhat tongue-in-cheek question – when every single product on the web calls itself a platform, we’ll have to invent a new word to let wannabe players impress VCs.

The inimitable Phil Wainewright recently released an excellent report looking at different aspects of PaaS, I thought I’d try and bring a philosophical bent to the discussion.

In my mind, to claim the moniker “platform” a service needs to have a number of attributes; an ecosystem, critical mass, beachhead status and openness. So what different types of platforms do I see out there?

Monotheistic platforms

What I’ve playfully called monotheistic platforms leverage one particular business process and attempt to build a platform around that. It’ll always be a niche but so long as it’s a big enough niche it’s worth following. Force.com is the originator of the PaaS moniker. It’s clearly gaining an ecosystem, with third parties developing applications that live within its world and it’s also seemingly gaining some critical mass. Force.com however is less than open – it dictates how applications can be written, it dictates (to a certain extent) how applications look and it’s central view of the world is CRM-centric (although admittedly less so now than even a few months ago). Force.com is a platform but it’s what I’ll call a niche platform.

Like Switzerland, only different, and bigger

Platforms that span the divide between on-premises and SaaS and that do so in a neutral way are arguably something of a nirvana. These platforms interact seamlessly with the web environment, while also federating to on-premises applications. They also broaden the offering such that vendors can chose parts of the stack to adopt (billing, authentication, data models etc). As for size, like anything in business, reach is critical and this is where the incumbent players have an edge – having the ability to leverage an existing customer based but introduce them to a platform is the gold many platform plays would die for. I’ve written before about the Intuit Partner Platform (disclosure – IPP is a client) and I contend that it’s an exemplar of this type of platform play – both from a vendor perspective and an end-user centric viewpoint.

Ego Platforms – The Id

To use Freud’s term, these platforms cater for the Id part of our personalities – these social platforms are built around individuals core desire to connect and find meaning from the people around them – exhibit one, Facebook. One can’t deny that Facebook has true critical mass, it also has a plethora of third parties creating offerings surrounding it. It’s beachhead proposition is “the social graph” but again it’s fairly closed. I’d temper that last statement however to say that Facebook Connect is a move towards becoming a more open, amorphous platform.

Pantheism

Pantheism is the view that everything is part of an all-encompassing, immanent God. Without talking about the utility or otherwise of Twitter, it is the ultimate pantheistic example. To continue the pantheistic analogy, it is a platform that doesn’t focus at all on the anthromorphic expression of itself, rather it’s an abstract expression – the “tweet” is a semi-abstract thing that takes on different shapes and forms at different times. The ecosystem that has built up around Twitter is phenomenal – this is precisely because it’s a platform that doesn’t dictate where players are or how they look. From this point of view Twitter is ultimately open. The critical mass they have is a little debatable looking at statistics of users who are actual active. Twitter’s beachhead status is communication – often vacuous communication it must be admitted but communication nonetheless.

Co-operation

Co-operative platforms attempt to build critical mass through symbiosis. The Small Business Web is a good example of this. The Small Business Web, according to its founding partners

is a movement to bring together like-minded, customer-obsessed software companies to integrate our respective products and make life easier for small businesses. While there are many products available for small business owners on the Web, the approach we’re taking is to use each others APIs to provide a high-level of integration between these applications and create a more seamless experience for our customers.

In other words a bunch of small SaaS start-ups got together to try and build an alternative to the single site best-of-breed application. By working together on integrations, they’re slowly build the ability for small businesses to pick and mix functionality according to their specific needs.

Summary

Not eveyone can be a platform, but everyone sure wants to be. I’d be keen to hear readers thoughts about this post and how they see the platform battles shaking down over the next year or two.