Whose platform is it anyway?

Aiaz Kazi Profile picture for user aiaz.kazi February 26, 2015
Platforms are now part of the tech lexicon, but do the definitions hold up? SAP's Aiaz Kazi shares how his own view of platforms has evolved, and how his team's work with developers and startups has changed his thinking

Last week, at the SAP Startup Forum in London I talked about the essential components of a software platform from my view and experience. During the event mixer, I was asked a few times to double-click on my ideas and views. Also, I had already committed to Jon Reed that I would pen my thoughts on platform at the end of last year when I did a video interview with him on platforms.

‘Platform’ is one of the most misused words in the software industry   Almost every software vendor is touting that they have a “platform” – a Big Data platform, an IoT platform, an analytics platform, an application development platform, a mobile platform, an integration platform, a social platform – .the list goes on.

Why is the platforms discussion important?

Building an enduring company today requires us to consider how users will interact with products and offerings. A company’s platform plays an integral part in this continued interaction.

If you look at companies like Nike, AirBnB, Facebook, GE, YouTube, Chase, Wikipedia, Uber- they are leading the way in building technology platforms to grow sustainably and in many of cases, use the platform to disrupt the status quo.

To help understand “platform” better lets start at the very beginning…

A very good place to start

Consider the basic definition of “platform” in the English dictionary

plat·form ˈplatfôrm/ noun

noun: platform; plural noun: platforms

    1. a raised level surface on which people or things can stand.

Put simply, a platform is something that people stand on and a software platform is one that applications run on.

What’s missing from the definitions we’ve seen on technology platform?

Most technology vendors talk about platform as a product or as a technology architecture. While these definitions are technically valid they are limiting, and using them will almost certainly result in yet another platform with no competitive advantage.  I learned how to approach this correctly from my experiences at BEA and SAP. BEA had earned its stripes as a developer platform. At SAP, getting our developer engagement model right has been a long-standing challenge. We have made significant strides by addressing the end-to-end experience of the SAP developer community: providing easier sign up, free trials, perpetual licenses, and open source affiliations.

Despite adopting this developer community engagement model, for a long time we were missing an important component, an appropriate commercial platform that allows for monetization. In my tenure at SAP, I have worked closely with SAP HANA startups and together we have learned how to build a platform that brings customers and developers together. In this series, I'll share the lessons I’ve learned on platform, and invite you to help write subsequent chapters about direction of platforms in the future.

Interestingly it is not just the technology platform definition that is flawed, but also the way companies are approaching technology platforms in general. Companies have traditionally spent inordinate amounts of time stressing over programming language choices, development stack, architectural elegance, and deployment options. However, this approach is limited and results in companies missing the less obvious opportunities available through the platform.

Not one, not two, but three!

Technology is a key aspect of a technical platform but is only one aspect. To ensure the delivery of a complete platform, three aspects must be taken into account:

  1. Technology and architecture
  2. Platform end-to-end experience
  3. Commercialization and community around the platform

Each one of the aspects deserves it’s own story, but I will summarize them for now.

For technology and architecture. we need to consider the various elements of a modern-day platform. including:

  • built for cloud-first deployment
  • mobile-first consumption
  • composable from many basic units of services/components
  • extensible
  • the ability to easily fill in gaps

This goes far beyond the other technology aspects of platform we’ve talked about so far.

For platform. end-to-end experience is important to provide an incredible developer experience for testing, runtime, and production, an easy experience to fit within a data center and deliver uptime, reliability and scalability. Importantly, developers need a way to try before they buy. A seamless licensing and legal experience for downloads, click-throughs and trials is critical to keeping the platform experience valuable to users at the outset.

The end-to-end experience goes way beyond the experience of developers and developer operations. It extends to anyone who interacts with the platform in any way. Apple has set the standard in the consumer industry. Everything from product packaging, product design and store design has been created with a superior experience at every possible interaction point. A technology platform needs to provide the same kind of consumer grade experience.

Finally, platform commercialization and community is perhaps the most important ingredient of platform adoption, and along with platform end-to-end experience, will make or break a platform. Technology alone does not guarantee a company’s long- term sustainable advantage in a world where the pace of commoditization is accelerating. Having said that, it is not easy to replicate end-to-end experience or commercialization and community models.

Platform commercialization is key to figuring out what kind of technology platform one needs to build: is it for new applications, extensions, white-label or OEM, service-based or API based, user or developer seat based, or data size or connections based? Most open-source platforms don’t focus on commercialization early - that works as long as there is rapid adoption. Enterprise platforms, on the other hand, must figure out a way to commercialize from the start, as the opportunity to generate revenue will inherently drive more adoption and encourage developers to build their best offerings.

Adoption is key to the success of a platform. It goes back to the most basic definition of platform: something upon which everyone can stand. Widespread platform adoption will realize its true potential only with the participation of various communities including startups, venture capitalists, incubators, universities and schools, research and not-for-profit organizations, cities and governments, strategic ISVs and system integrators.

Where all of this comes together is in how producer and consumer communities will engage with the platform and define the meaning of benefit, whether it is direct or indirect monetization. A key aspect of such a platform is the availability of a marketplace where producers and consumers can come together to exchange information, knowledge, services, and transact business.

And a new day will dawn for those who stand long.

The platform journey is long and goes beyond thinking a couple of quarters ahead, in order to build something that provides sustainable competitive advantage for years to come.

I encourage you to join me on this platform exploration journey by sharing your platform experiences and perspective. They will inform future posts and help expand upon the views shared here.

Image credit: Tablet in hands © dragonstock - Fotolia.com

A grey colored placeholder image