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.

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Social Graphs and Online Identity: What’s next?

Here’s some good questions: How many friends do you have on Facebook? How many on LinkedIn? How many on various IM services? What about Twitter? If your answer is the same for all these questions, I’d be very surprised.

Jeremiah Owyang wrote on this very issue back in November of 2007, and he was suggesting OpenSocial as the most likely solution moving forward. Facebook Connect launched a year later in November 2008.

Fast forward to 2010… Facebook now has over 350 million active users. MySpace claims over 76 million in the US alone. Twitter has over 50 million accounts. And the “old” social networks (e-mail & IM) claim millions of users as well (Windows Live 375M+). Each of these networks still maintain their own versions of social graphs, and none of them will actively “share” information with one another.

Today, I ran across a startup called Soocial, which claims to sync your contacts (read: social graphs) across multiple networks. WE’RE SAVED, right? Not really… The service requires client software on any phone to sync, client software on a PC to sync, and despite claiming to be “hassle-free”, is too much for most users to set up.

So, what will it take to really win in this space?

  1. Partnership at a high-level – Execs at Facebook, Microsoft, Google, AIM, LinkedIn, etc need to be willing to share social graph data with outside sources. Remember, the entire purpose of social networks is to publish and share information with others. If the data is already public, why not make it accessible?
  2. Constant Sync – Today’s sync tools are largely based around “importing” your contacts in a one-time data comparison. A true winner will maintain a synchronized relationship of data, pushing and pulling data as it changes across the network
  3. Published Contact InfoGoogle Profiles & Plaxo  are a great start of maintaining active contact information for an individual. The next step is providing this level of detail across multiple networks, maintaining a canonical contact card that can change whenever any linked service changes.

Some early attempts:

Further Reading:

Google’s Chrome O/S: A non-event?

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Today’s heavily hyped press event around Google’s operating system (which is still a year away from launch) would make one think that major new features were about to be announced. However, this is no Google Navigation announcement. MSFT closed down –1.10% for the day and GOOG also closed down –0.63% for the day.

First, the simple question, what is Google’s Chrome O/S? Chrome is a fast, lightweight web browser that does not allow any modification to the base system. Chrome O/S is a dumb terminal. There are no plans for storage built into the system, relying completely on the cloud to store data.

How are they handling the major points I raised in my last post?

  1. Device Compatibility – Google only announced compatibility with storage cards, digital cameras, and printers. Driver support for printers has historically been a problem for Microsoft (note over 2M results for searches around XP, Vista, and Win7). There are many vendors and legacy printers that users will expect support for. So, Google is focusing on only a few segments to support, but even then, it’s still a big problem to solve in the next year.
  2. Application Compatibility – As predicted, Google will support extensions and plugins, but not have “native apps”. Still to see if Chrome will support running web applications stored on an SD card…
  3. Web Compatibility – If I were at the press event, this would be where my questions would focus. Google glossed over what will be supported and did not show any OpenID, Facebook, or other online authentication modules. Presence is obviously built in, utilizing the current Google Talk interfaces. Nothing really new here.

All in all, I thought it was a great overview, although not very groundbreaking. Looks like Google will be offering this for free, mainly around netbooks, for launch sometime in Q4 2010. Windows 7 Starter is currently priced around $30, so it remains to be seen what sort of impact these Google Chrome “appliances” will have on this market. Historically, MSFT has dominated Linux in the netbook space, achieving massive market share even while charging for the product. Chrome is getting a lot of hype, but will it topple MSFT? Time will tell…

What makes a successful O/S? Chrome vs Win7

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First off, define “success”… Microsoft Windows is the de facto standard accounting for over 90% of all O/S share. Does Apple’s Mac OS X with ~5% count as success? Linux adoption is even less… Thus, one should realize that the operating system is the platform for devices to be built on, and that platform is quickly changing. As I posted about Microsoft Office earlier this week, the advent of the web as the new platform for application development will change the dynamic for what matters to consumers about an O/S. Google’s success will be determined not by market share, but by how effectively they can change public opinion about operating systems.

  1. Device Compatibility – The age old problem for computer hardware vendors can be summed up in a single word: drivers. One of the primary reasons Windows Vista had such a negative connotations in people’s minds was a lack of driver compatibility. What good is a device if you can’t use it? Users expect true plug and play. Windows 7 has this, can Google deliver?
  2. Application Compatibility – I think Google will leverage the developer ecosystem they’ve been building, and try to turn applications into operating system extensions. Perhaps it’s just nomenclature, but Google would be smart to have a similar open App Store for their O/S, much like Apple’s iPhone store, or the Android App Store (Possible Bonus: Allow Android apps to run natively in Chrome).
  3. Web Compatibility – I think Google will integrate the Chrome browser so tightly into the O/S that it will be indistinguishable to the user if an app/extension is on the web or on the desktop. I think Google will use extensive caching and focus on an “always on” internet connection. This fits in perfectly with Google Mail, Google Talk, and Google Docs. I believe presence and cross-site authentication will be major focuses of the operating system, allowing a user to unify their identity online being pre-authenticated by the O/S.

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I’m interested to see what the Google Chrome O/S launch contains. Hopefully, we’ll enter a new era of competition, which brings new innovations from both camps. After all, Microsoft can claim that if Google is already creating something (and offering it for free) that Microsoft should be able to as well. Look for increased bundling of applications and online services from both companies. Microsoft and Google realize that this game is about the platform, and that platform is increasingly becoming web-based.

2010: Office Wars

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Microsoft Office has been THE standard for document creation in the English speaking business world for at least a decade. The components of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook, when paired with an Exchange Server has been the de facto standard in business. Word can manage simple text documents, complete academic papers, and even simple desktop publishing tasks. Excel spreadsheets are used in everything from accounting to basic databases, to mini-programs when combined with macros. And, who hasn’t heard of “Death by PowerPoint”? Outlook is the preeminent e-mail/calendar/groupware solution that hasn’t had any real competition outside the ever present but lagging Lotus Notes. Microsoft has owned the business content creation market since the early 90s, with no realistic competition. There is a vested interest in Microsoft protecting their profit center around Office, and they won’t go down without a fight…

In 2010, the game is finally going to change. 2009 has been marked with trends around the mobility of business users, and the increasing globalization of companies’ workforces. Thus, the word “cloud” has snuck into IT vocabularies across the nation. In order to service mobile users, data and documents need to be accessible anywhere. Various startups (Zoho, Writely (acquired by Google), and others) have been touting this concept for years, under “collaborative document editing”. Realistically, all this means is that the latest version of the document is stored in the “cloud” and multiple users can access it and edit it either online, or offline (and upload the changes later).

The battle will unfold with new innovations from Microsoft and Google. Microsoft’s Office 2010 is introducing a number of significant changes to their business model, as follows:

  1. Office 2010 will have a free version – Until now, the cheapest version was Home & Student, which could occasionally be found for $69.99 on special
  2. Office 2010 will save documents to the cloud – Microsoft will support this natively, offering free, but limited storage for home and business use
  3. Office 2010 will focus on interoperability – The EU has been forcing Microsoft to open up their formats and natively support ODF, and Microsoft voluntarily incorporates support for PDF

Google, the upstart competitor in this battle, has been adding features to their Apps offering to really compete in this space. Here’s their approach:

  1. Google Apps will not match Microsoft from a feature to feature perspective – Google Apps just needs to be “good enough” (and cheaper) to switch
  2. Get Major Institutions to switch to Google Apps
  3. Build an Ecosystem around Google Apps – Offline through Chrome and Extensions through Labs
  4. Emphasize Search – Google started as a search company, and searching all your documents from anywhere, anytime will be a sizable draw…

So, where does this lead? Microsoft Office is the obvious incumbent, with great new features coming. Google Apps is getting stronger everyday, but is clearly lacking (and will continue to lack features). Either way, this will be a great year for document creation, making it easier for consumers and businesses to share and collaborate on documents. I, for one, am excited to see the results…

Relevant Links:

Who gets the credit? – Mobile Navigation

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Earlier last week, Google made an announcement that rocked the GPS market (namely Garmin and TomTom). The odd thing about this, is that one announcement from Google gets all the press, the web, and the tech market in general, talking about personal navigation and how this is a “game-changing technology.”

In fact, Google’s announcement really isn’t anything revolutionary. GPS technology has been present in mobile phones for over two years, and the introduction of Google Maps goes back to 2005 (and MapQuest before that started in 1996). The fact that investors either didn’t see this coming, or weren’t taking it into account on the stock price is amazing to me. Turn-by-turn navigation technology is already provided today, streaming to any Windows Mobile based phone with GPS technology built in. The only difference is that Microsoft isn’t marketing it very well. Microsoft has taken a back seat this year when it comes to marketing, allowing the products to speak for themselves. Bing for mobile is, although not as polished as the upcoming Google offering, a great tool for finding information on the road. It has built in voice recognition, turn-by-turn directions, satellite view, etc.

In essence, Bing mobile has today EVERY major feature mentioned in the Google announcement, yet the product has made almost no noise in the industry. Microsoft needs to get back to letting the industry know that they are offering leading technology products, and continue to innovate.

That said, Bing mobile still has some room for improvement. Here’s 3 things that would help this product succeed:

  • Higher Resolution Maps – Google Maps looks great on high-resolution, high-dpi devices. I have a new 480×800 screen, and the Bing maps look like low-res images that are oversized. The advent of 3G data bandwidth and high resolution screens means it’s time for an update.
  • Updated UI – The opening screen for Bing mobile includes options including “Maps”, “Traffic”, “Directions”, “Gas Prices”, etc. To me, this seems redundant, all this information will be displayed on a map, so open to the map and then let me add the info I want on top of it. Quick buttons on the map interface would be much better than the plain white background.
  • Marketing – What good is the product if no one knows about it? Learn to enlist social media and new media outlets to get mainstream attention.

Windows 7 Launch Day

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October 22nd, 2009 is the official retail launch of Windows 7 for Microsoft. It’s been a long time coming, and many have said that “Windows 7 is what Windows Vista should have been”. I definitely agree with this statement, and I wholeheartedly advocate that Windows users migrate to Windows 7 as soon as possible.

But, let’s look at WHY to upgrade. First off, one thing I hated about Windows Vista was that my computer always seemed to be “doing something” even if I wasn’t running any applications… CPU usage was all over the place and memory usage would keep growing. Wih Windows 7, that problem is solved, it FEELS like a lightweight operating system. But aside from the generalities, what specifically can Windows 7 do that Windows XP can’t?

  • Native 64-bit CPU, memory, and application support
    • With memory being so cheap, and 64-bit applications around the corner (Office 2010, Photoshop, even IE & Firefox) it’s important to be ready for the future (and you CAN’T do an in-place upgrade from 32-bit to 64-bit O/S)
  • Great new version of Windows Media Center (including new Internet TV features)
  • Updated, modern GPU-accelerated interface
    • New taskbar to keep all your most used programs close at hand, add jump lists and it’s easy to get to the documents you need in less than 2 clicks
  • Startup in less than 30 seconds, Shutdown in less than 10 seconds, Resume almost instantaneously
    • Instant gratification, what more can you want?
  • HomeGroup functionality (like a mini-domain)

    • Easily Share documents, media and printers with a simple password

Those are the big new functions that I personally use everyday. I have a total of 3 computers in the house, all of which are running Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit. It’s simply better than Windows XP in every regard, and is well worth the upgrade. Always do a clean install when upgrading to ensure your computer is performing it’s best.

Here’s the relevant links to help purchase and deploy Windows 7 Professional:

Disclaimer: I’m the Business Development Manager for Microsoft at ASI, so I am a little biased