Platforms, the multipurpose marketing vehicle?

Platform. This has to be the most confusing word used in the whole SaaS ecosystem at the moment. I don’t think I am alone in being a little confused by this, here’s why.

Force.com is a platform (apex and previously appexchange). There's a fair bit of noise about this one currently

Marc Andreesen did this piece on platforms, with the definitionA "platform" is a system that can be programmed and therefore customized by outside developers — users — and in that way, adapted to countless needs and niches that the platform's original developers could not have possibly contemplated, much less had time to accommodate.” And a more simple version

“If you can program it, then it's a platform. If you can't, then it's not.”

Richard MacManus alludes to the entire web being a platform, especially for web 2.0.

Bob at smoothspan has had at least three goes at platform plays (here, here, and one I quite like here). Bob suggests thinking about platforms like this.

A platform provides a framework on which applications written by others can be run.”

Sinclair Schuller at Saasblogs  even does a taxonomy and does a great job of describing the salesforce.com evolution with this statement “Initially, the platform was a robust API that allowed other vendors to tap into Salesforce.com’s powerful application model and build added functionality into it. Later, Salesforce.com moved away from this and created something known as the AppExchange, which became an ecosystem for CRM-aligned SaaS applications built on their platform. Recently, Salesforce announced a new, more powerful platform named Apex that supersedes all previous notions. Notice anything? They called each one of these a platform,
and to some level, rightfully so.”

The problem is, there's not a bunch of consistency in any of these definitions.

So, in the interests of firing up some debate I’ll have a go.

A platform to me is more than a a thing for programming so I don’t really like Marc’s definition, to me, that would be a programming language.

I think platforms do break down, but I think the break down into usage types

I think there are service delivery platforms. The little I know about Apprenda, would indicate that this is an example.

The next type are platforms that provide facilitation. A billing platform would be a good example, especially if this is plugged into another platform. Maestro or paypal are examples.

I think there are development platforms, Facebook and Force.com are these. They provide a ready made ecosystem for app developers. Recent moves by Microsoft would suggest they are heading this way too. Given they’re history with the SDK this is a very real platform

I think Force.com is a special case because it transcends my next category, integration platforms. By creating a platform that makes application integration easy you break down a major headache for customers and hopefully (in Salesforce.com's case) your core product.

I also think that there are single service or core product platforms. One of the most developed of these is voice (POTS). When you think of SaaS and success you really should factor in analogue voice into that. Other examples are the Galileo system.

Finally, I think platforms can be aggregators. Could you call Google a platform? Well kinda, maybe soon.  

The thing is, even this taxonomy don’t really work. What about communications, routing, hardware, storage, mobile device, operating systems….

Perhaps we should try to be a bit more granular, maybe we should step away from the cliché? I don’t know. I do however agree with Sinclair. I think ‘creative marketing’ has meant the term is overused, and that creates confusion.  I’d argue that confusion shouldn’t be the aim if you got something solid to say….

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