How open platforms will change the world.
For those old enough to remember, in the late 80’s the software world was asking, “What is the next killer application?”
The landscape was dominated by spreadsheets, word processors and databases. It all seemed stuck. The answer of course was not an application but interconnected information. The notion of a killer application was the wrong notion and led to small thinking. With the creation of a client/server protocol, a standard viewer and a web of linking documents, we caught lightning in a bottle. Tim Berners Lee’s statue will be on display in the pantheon of game changing innovation.
How do we catch lightning in a bottle again? How do we create a bottled lightning factory? We believe the answer is in pushing the boundaries of the open software movement into open platforms. Let me explain.
In 1916 SMPE, the Society of Motion Picture Engineers was founded to bring order to the chaos that was holding back the growth of the film industry. There were too many film formats and incompatible equipment designs. SMPE’s first standard was to get everyone using 35mm film width, 4 sprockets per frame, 1.37:1 picture ratio. Like a lightning bolt, theaters could all run the same films.
When you look through the wide-angle lens of an industry, those catalytic moments are often moments of leap-of-faith collaboration. Depending on the cocktails parties you attend, there is always conversation about the grand moments when people figured out how to collaborate to create business revolutions (VHS, Blue Tooth, The Web, the list goes on and on). No one, either at the beginning of the party or at the end, will disagree about the transformative power of collaboration.
Outside of the party, in the real world, things are messier and more organic. There is a balance between the interplay of self-interest and the common good. Humans are both social and competitive.
The simplest lightning moments are often just an agreement on dimensions. Internet display banner sizes, the voltage in your electrical outlet, the frame rate for movies, are simple dimensions that make things work.
More complex, and often more impactful, are communication rules and protocols. Combine the alphabet soup of TCP/IP with HTTP and HTML and you get trillion-dollar results. NTCS let us all watch Gilligan’s Island and Star Trek.
Many bottled lightning events go beyond agreement on communications protocols and dimensions, they require a physical embodiment. This is nothing new. The Romans built roads. The U.S. government builds and maintains GPS.
Industry wide platform deployment is often driven by governments (e.g. the Romans and the U.S.) or, as is usually the case, when a dominant player emerges to provide a platform for their own commercial success. Our 60 Hz AC power grid standard was a decision made by Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla. MS-DOS created a fair share of fortunes not altruistically motivated.
I submit that we are entering an age where physical platforms will be the driving force behind the next round of opportunities. They also will be conceived, created and maintained for the benefit of the larger community. We are no longer required to rely on government control or a dominant industry player to create opportunity.
I know this all sounds very kumbaya. We join hands around a campfire sing, dream big and build things that change the world. Except for the singing, yes, that’s the idea. The real challenge is creating processes that fosters this and overcomes some of the inherent fears about risks and giving up control.
First, the infrastructure friction around creating highly scalable, always on and open platforms has tumbled. There are a number of providers that allow for a low-cost barrier of creation and that can grow in cost as usage increases.
It is easier to replace competitive fears with shared opportunity. This is actually not that new. In 1911 the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association was formed. The new association instituted a cross-licensing agreement among all US auto manufacturers: although each company would develop technology and file patents, these patents were shared openly and without the exchange of money between all the manufacturers. Wow, companies were contributing invention treasure for the common good. A century later, we are reaching a tipping point in this thinking.
Power is being concentrated into too few hands. Without naming, many nascent platform ideas are being absorbed and either destroyed or assimilated in the process. People are realizing this and sounding alarms.
While the ideas are not new, optimal processes need to be worked out. Here are some high-level guideposts.
Position platforms as business propositions, not engineering solutions. Think outside the technical requirements box. Imagine what an ecosystem might look like if a platform existed. What industry level opportunities arise and what businesses can form?
Identify and expand constituencies. As noted above, there is a tendency to design platforms from the stand point of a technical audience. Take the time to think about and talk to people outside the engineering lanes. Platforms often succeed through an organic and serendipitous process. Create participation opportunities with out-sized rewards. Let first mover advantages happen.
Open doesn’t always mean free. Think about how to share and distribute costs and risks. DNS is a shared, ubiquitous and essential resource. It requires an economic model to function (domain registration fees). In contrast with pure open source software systems, platforms require a more physical presence. This needs to be taken into account.
There will be two categories of opportunities. The motivations and economics between these categories will be different.
First will be the building and maintaining of the platform itself. This will include all supporting and ancillary tools, processes and businesses. For example, the movie business requires an industry within an industry of cameras, lights, processes etc.
Second, the businesses that will extend out in ever widening circles. An online store is far removed from provider of the web-server platform.
Participation has value. The benefits of joining need to be clearly articulated over not joining. Using the platform is a collaborative effort and has to be viewed as a growth strategy. Take the 1911 automotive example, not participating left you out of the general growth of the industry and joining was viewed as strategic. Leaders have to see past the short term risks and embrace the larger potential.
It’s a two way street. There is an expectation that users will contribute back. Datasets will increase and insights will be shared. The goal is to create what we call ‘scale-able intelligence’. This requires the greatest leap-of-faith and vision by members. You have to imagine a world where the wheel is not in constant reinvention.
Open source software actually started in the 1950’s with a resurgence in the 1980’s. It has grown into a critical part of the world’s technical scaffolding. Open platforms have the same impact potential. Open source software had to go through a maturation process. There were structural issues. Terminology, licensing issues and other rules of the road needed to evolve. There was an acceptance ladder to climb as well. There was a time when no company would incorporate open software in their products let alone base their entire business on it. Now it’s common place.
Open platforms are going through their own maturation process. Best practices are still being worked out. We are taking an organic approach and engaging in projects that focus on an open platform approach.
These are all early stage projects. Contact me if you would like more information about these or if you have ideas for other projects.
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Dan Lovy is Executive Director of SIMC
Jonathan Bissell is Executive Director of Community, Continuing and Corporate Education at San Mateo County Community College District
Briana Brownell is Founder and CEO at Pure Strategy Inc.
Roger Sanford is our Marketing Guru