I've been thinking a lot about platform adoption recently. I guess it is the combination of the upcoming Microsoft PDC and watching the various moves in the area of social networking platforms like OpenSocial and fbOpen. One thing that is abundantly clear is that the dynamics that drive platform adoption are amazingly consistent regardless of whether you are talking about operating system platforms like Windows' Win32 and *nix's POSIX, cloud computing platforms like Amazon's EC2 + EBS + S3 and Google App Engine, or even data access APIs like the Flickr API and Google's GData.

When a developer adopts a platform, there is a value exchange between the developer and the software vendor. The more value that is provided to developers by the platform vendor, the more developers are attracted to the platform. Although this seems self evident, where providers of platforms go astray is that they often don't understand the value developers actually want out of software platforms and instead operate from an if we build it they will come mentality. 

There are three main benefits adoption of one platform over another can offer a developer. These benefits are captured in the following "laws" of platform adoption  

  1. Developers adopt a platform when it offers differentiation from competitors: In competitive software markets, building an application that stands out from the crowd is important. Platforms or technologies that enable developers to provide features that are unique to the application, even just temporarily, are thus valuable to developers in such markets. Typically, if these features are truly valuable to end users this leads to a "keeping up with the Joneses" effect where the majority applications in that space eventually adopt this platform. Recent examples of this include Flash video, AJAX and the Flickr API.

  2. Developers adopt a platform when it reduces the cost of software development: Building software is a labor intensive, complicated and error prone process which often results in failure. This makes software development an expensive undertaking. Platforms which reduce the cost of development are thus very valuable to developers. Platforms like Java and the .NET Framework reduced the cost of software development compared to building applications using C and C++. In recent years, platforms based on dynamic languages such as Ruby On Rails and Django have become increasingly popular for building Web applications as they offer simpler development options compared to using "enterprise" platforms like Java.

  3. Developers adopt a platform when it provides reach and/or better distribution: Every platform choice places a limit on which users the developer can reach. Building a Facebook application limits you to building applications for Facebook users, building an iPhone application limits you to people running Apple's phone and building an AJAX application limits you to users of modern browsers who don't have JavaScript disabled. In all of the aforementioned cases, the reach of the application platform is in the millions of users. Additionally, in all of the aforementioned cases there are alternative platforms that developers could choose that do not as many addressable end users and thus have less reach. 

    Distribution is another value add that modern platforms have begun to offer which augments the reach of the platform. The Facebook platform offers several viral distribution mechanisms for applications which enables applications to get noticed by end users and spread organically among users without explicit action by the developer. The Apple iPhone has the App Store which is the single, well-integrated entry point for users to discover and purchase applications for the device. Thus even though the iPhone may have users than other smart phone platforms, targeting the iPhone platform may still be more attractive than targeting other platforms due to its superior distribution channel for applications built on its platform. 

Sometimes developers adopt platforms due to external effects such as management mandate or peer pressure but even in these cases the underlying justification is usually one or more of the benefits above. These laws mean different things for the various participants in the software ecosystem.

  • For software vendors, they clarify that delivering a software platform isn't just about delivering a technology or a set of APIs. The value proposition to developers with regards to the three laws of adoption must be clearly shown to get developers to accept the platform. Smart platform vendors should pick one or more of these axes as the value proposition of their platform and hammer it home. Good examples of these approaches include how Google has been hammering home the 'reach' benefit of adopting OpenSocial or how Erlang evangelists have been pitching it as a solution to the multicore crises given that building concurrent applications is still an expensive endeavor in today's popular programming languages. 

  • For developers, they explain how to evaluate a platform and why some platforms get traction among their peers while others do not. So if you are a fan of the Common Lisp or the Pownce API, these laws of platform adoption explain why developers have flocked to other platforms in their stead.

Now Playing: Pink - So What


 

Monday, September 8, 2008 3:05:00 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
You missed a fourth reason:

Developers adopt a platform when it offers greater freedom: When software is built on top of a platform, it becomes tied to that platform's API and semantics. Moving to another platform later is expensive, often prohibitively so. Thus developers recognize that when choosing platforms, their choices must serve for the lifespans of their projects. For this reason, and because software is often written in highly competitive environments where being able to respond quickly to changing market conditions is important, many developers adopt platforms that minimize restrictions and give them increased freedom to do whatever they want with their software. Many developers at start-ups choose open-source platforms, for example, because if they need to "scale like crazy," they can do so without having to accommodate burdensome licensing restrictions, such as per-CPU fees, which might artificially constrain scaling options; or if they need to modify their chosen platforms to accommodate unexpected market conditions, they have complete freedom to so, having been granted all necessary license by the platforms' authors from the outset.

Cheers! --Tom
Monday, September 8, 2008 4:25:38 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
good summary. however I think you missed a fundamental 4th reason:

4) Platform helps increase/improve Monetization (make money)

in fact, arguably this reason + #3 Distribution drive most adoption. #2 Cost reduction is a good but not great reason, and probably just a different form of #1 Differentiation.

But fundamentally if you can't get customers or make money all the tech in the world won't matter much.
Monday, September 8, 2008 5:36:38 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
Tom,
You're right about how lock-in affects platform adoption. I was going to mention something about it when I first started drafting the post. It got tricky when I tried to differentiate this from the "reducing costs" law and thus I left it out.

I probably should have let those thoughts bake more before publishing this post. :)
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