Platform fever

As we shift to a new model of software delivery, software companies are heavily promoting their “platforms.” As with so many terms in the IT world, the definition of “platform” hinges on the interests of the seller. In some cases, a platform is simply a suite of applications that draw on the same data pool. In other cases, it’s a set of interfaces and tools that outside developers can use to add features, extensions and elaborations to a vendor’s core applications. In still other cases, a platform is little more than a marketing concept, an umbrella brand for disparate products. In all cases, though, the platforms being promoted share one important characteristic: they’re proprietary. The vendor owns the platform and, in one way or another, collects tolls from those who use it.

Greg Gianforte, CEO of RightNow Technologies, a supplier of one of the leading software-as-a-service applications for managing customer service, thinks the “platform fetish,” as he puts it, is dangerous. He shared with me a brief essay he’s written that attacks platforms like Oracle’s Fusion, SAP’s NetWeaver, Microsoft’s .NET, and’s AppExchange as either “global hegemony” strategies to “exercise total control over their customers’ computing environments” or “‘marketectures’ that exist purely to rationalize bad acquisitions.” Grand platforms, in his view, run counter to the real interests of corporate customers, who simply “need business solutions that actually help them compete and succeed in the real world.”

He underscores his point with an analogy: “How would you feel if your mechanic handed you a 125-piece wrench set rather than actually fixing your car? What if another mechanic then walked up to you with his tools and started arguing with the first guy about whose tools were better? You sure wouldn’t feel like either of them was going to help you with your problem, would you? Yet that’s exactly what software vendors are doing today as they engage in their platform wars – much to the detriment of their customers and the industry.”

Gianforte’s argument provides a good counterweight to platform hype. It’s hard not to see the big software vendors’ platform strategies as counterrevolutionary ploys to partition the open Internet – the uber platform – into lucrative fiefdoms. On the other hand, platforms have advantages. They can make it easier for users to share data among applications (although XML and web services promise to make this advantage less important), and by opening up proprietary software to outsiders, they can lead to useful innovations. The latter benefit seems to be the real goal of an effort like AppExchange, which won’t bring about a wholesale transformation of enterprise applications but may well enhance’s core CRM software. When I questioned Gianforte about this, he tempered his rhetoric a bit. He granted that AppExchange is “an interesting experiment,” but questioned whether “any serious software firm [will] really deliver their solution via someone else’s ‘platform’ where most of the application revenue goes to that other third party. If it works, it would be the first time in the history of the software industry.” That may be true, but it’s not only the “serious software firm” that produces useful code.

Ultimately, Gianforte believes, the on-demand utility model for IT delivery will combine with open-source software to render platforms irrelevant. As the underlying IT infrastructure becomes a commodity that users neither own nor care about, “the need to create a proprietary technology platform as a competitive differentiator” disappears. “MySQL replaces Oracle. Linux replaces Windows. TomCat and JBOSS replace Websphere and NetWeaver. Vendors that are still trying to differentiate themselves in these commodity businesses are clearly headed in the wrong direction. Yet that is exactly what platform vendors continue to do.”

3 thoughts on “Platform fever

  1. ordaj

    I think more large customers need to do what Orange did to IBM: Demand that they join a group like the Liberty Alliance that promotes interoperability and federation. IBM wasn’t a member, but if they wanted the business from Orange, they quickly acquiesced. Companies need to move their data around and share it. Anything that gets in the way is a hindrance and that would be most tech companies today.

    Proprietary schmoprietary.

  2. Dan Farber

    Gianforte makes some good points about platforms have a lock-in aspect (although you should be able to take your data with you). But as you point out Nick, platforms and the ecosystems around them have advantages for users, developers, partners, in house IT, and of course the platform owner. RightNow might have open source infrastructure, but it’s a proprietary product. What would be wrong with opening it up to customers and independent developers to build new components and even apps on its “platform.” Also, in an on demand scenario, does it make any difference if the infrastructure is open source or not. uses Oracle, Solaris. The customers don’t have to deal with that. The end customer cares about the price/value and reputation of the vendor, not whether is runs Linux, Apache, Solaris, Oracle, WebSphere. What should happen is that RightNow and or Siebel On Demand or SAP apps should be able to exchange data and work together. Gianforte doesn’t think its good if a company build a good call center/interactive voice response app on the or Oracle’s future Fusion platform. But there is more than one model for delivering applications (non are perfect) and fortunately, customers have choice.

  3. Constant Random Musings

    Platform Mania

    Coming to ERP/CRM Suite, Larry Ellison announced in Oracle OpenWorld that Oracle, in its Project Fusion, will certify its software on all standard containers and none of them will be proprietary (keynote available here for download). Oracle Fusion ha…

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