The Power of Platforms

Side Note: RIP Steve Jobs

As we move into 2012, it’s readily apparent that the world has rewarded the creators of technology platforms quite well over the past 40 years. Companies like Amazon (shopping), Apple (iOS), Facebook (social), Google (search), Intel (x86), Microsoft (Windows), and Oracle (DB) all showcase world class platforms that are ubiquitous in the majority of modern life. Each one of these companies have been defined by a visionary leader who constantly drives new products and new technologies, capturing the world’s attention and ultimately improving lives with every iteration. These leaders carved their own path, typically not by creating something entirely new, but by reimagining current technologies and creating a platform and a “complete” vision. Take Microsoft for example, they were clearly not the inventors of the operating system, or even the GUI, but Bill Gates saw the bigger picture of the overarching value of an operating system that could be standardized in the marketplace and allowed a multitude of partners to be involved in it’s rise. Apple may have missed that boat, but instead with iOS, they created a portable platform for music, communication, and games. Each player started within a preexisting market, but redefined that market with their respective products. Let’s dive deeper into some examples of platform building and vision.

Microsoft: MS-DOS wasn’t the first Operating System, Windows wasn’t the first GUI

Vision: The Platform for the Personal Computer

Bill Gates realized that by partnering with the majority of the key personal computer manufacturers at the time, namely IBM, that he could define the experience of the PC and build an extensible platform for others to participate in. Because of this vision, he was highly aggressive at closing deals and iterating the operating system to ensure Microsoft software was the path of least resistance for developers. Further, Microsoft has always been highly partner focused, even recently evidenced by their desire to not bring a “Microsoft Phone” to market. This respect for partners has engendered a sense of safety in the channel.

Apple: iPods weren’t the first media players, iPhones definitely weren’t the first smartphones

Vision: iPod-The Platform for Music; iPhone- The Platform for Portable Apps

Steve Jobs redefined the music experience for the world in 2001. Building upon the prevalence of MP3s and the Napster generation, he brought music to a new generation with small, easy to use devices that organized large volumes of music. The click wheel allowed users to scroll through long lists quickly and accurately, and once the iTunes music store launched in 2003, Apple’s platform win was complete. Steve Jobs realized the success that the iTunes store brought to the iPod, and included it from day one in his iPhone plans. By bringing an open app ecosystem and convincing AT&T to heavily subsidize the iPhone hardware, he ensured success by making the smartphone accessible to all and leveraging the existing success of the iPod.

Facebook: Ever heard of Friendster or Myspace?

Vision: The Platform for Identity

Facebook started as one social network of many in 2004, but again had a few differentiators. Surprisingly, Mark Zuckerberg started it as a closed network, relying on only university students and verifying identity from the start. This highly structured network won out over time, because of key partnerships (Sean Parker) and lightning fast iteration to keep it ahead of every other player with pictures, music, games, and even various apps. Facebook continued verifying identity even after opening the network to all users, relying on real names and actively closing accounts for users that violate it’s policies. This builds user trust, and I think is one of the reasons that users flock to Facebook over other networks, since there is innate trust built in from the beginning.

Some people and business create platforms, others create features and add-ons. It’s easy to see over the long term where the significant value is. I’d like to say thank you to all the platform innovators of the past, present and future for your vision and execution.

Final Note: I’m definitely taking some liberties here, claiming that I know what all these guys were thinking, but from public speeches and talks, it’s clear that they had a distinct vision of their products and the ecosystem they were creating, whether they verbalized it or not. If anyone has any information to the contrary, feel free to correct me and I will update.