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 Salesforce.com’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 Salesforce.com’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.”