What is a Platform?

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PlatformA few weekends ago, I read an incredibly dry book on platforms called Invisible Engines. Even the name is dry.

They took an amazing topic and made it boring. Platforms are fascinating and shouldn’t be sold short with only academic or technical treatment. While I won’t get a book deal out of it, here’s why I love platforms.

A platform is typically defined as:

“a software program that makes services available to other software programs through Application Programming Interfaces (APIs).”

This is an accurate definition but to me it doesn’t communicate the full power of a platform. Platforms are the cornerstone of software innovation for one reason:

Platforms give everyone the freedom to create what they want.

A platform means people can create, extend, and customize their application to meet their own particular needs. The result is a thousand or million variations that are the exact right perfect thing for you.

With a platform, you don’t have to appeal to the company behind the service for the features you want. If you have the time and the inclination, you can build them yourself.

It’s the software equivalent of Home Depot.

Understanding this powerful, yet simple benefit of platforms has historically been limited to the realm of developers. Yet, it’s one of the primary reasons behind the web as we know and love it today. The web browser (and HTML) was a platform that enabled anyone to create a website.

When we started, we wanted to enable a diversity of social networks the same way the web browser enabled millions of different websites.

We wanted people to have the opportunity to create their own social networks and to make them whatever and whomever they wanted them to be. As a result, it didn’t make sense to build anything less than a platform.

Like any platform, some things are easier to do than others on Ning, but at its core, almost anything is possible.

What is and isn’t a platform

Doom is a platform. Second Life is a platform. You can program the way either one of these games work. In fact, they give you a copy of the code running it so that you can change it at will. That’s a platform.

MySpace is not a platform. MySpace doesn’t let you program it. MySpace doesn’t give you APIs. You can’t change any of the navigation links on MySpace, you can’t change how they display your friends, and if you wanted to add a new feature to your MySpace page, say a marketplace, you’re out of luck.

Even if MySpace is not a platform, what people have done with the limited freedom on MySpace is inspiring. The diversity and self-expression of MySpace pages is profound.

True platforms let people take this freedom to dramatically greater lengths, but any freedom is good in my book.

The only book I think captures the power of platforms is Masters of Doom and I think that’s because I just really like their story. Not only is it a great personal tale of entrepreneurship, creativity, and the reality of start-ups and doing something new, it describes a platform with a Hello Kitty example. I love it.

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