In his post What is the platform? Adam Bosworth writes
When I was at Microsoft, the prevailing internal assumption was that:
1) Platforms were great because they were "black holes" meaning that the more functionality they had, the more they sucked in users and the more users they had the more functionality they sucked in and so, it was a virtuous cycle.
The real value in my opinion has moved from the software to the information and the community. Amazon connects you to books, movies, and so on. eBay connects you to goodness knows how many willing sellers of specific goods. Google connects you to information and dispensers of goods and services. In every case, the push is for better and more timely access both to information and to people. I cannot, for the life of me, see how Longhorn or Avalon or even Indigo help one little bit in this value chain.
My mother never complains that she needs a better client for Amazon. Instead, her interest is in better community tools, better book lists, easier ways to see the book lists, more trust in the reviewers, librarian discussions since she is a librarian, and so on.
The platform of this decade isn't going to be around controlling hardware resources and rich UI. Nor do I think you're going to be able to charge for the platform per se. Instead, it is going to be around access to community, collaboration, and content. And it is going to be mass market in the way that the web is mass market, in the way that the iPod is mass market, in the way that a TV is mass market. Which means I think that it is going to be around services, not around boxes.
Last week while hanging out with Mike Vernal and a couple of smart folks from around Microsoft I had an epiphany about how the core of the consumer computing experience of the future would be tied to Web-based social software not operating systems and development platforms. When I read Adam Bosworth's post this weekend, it became clear to me that folks at Google have come to the same conclusion or soon will once Adam is done with them.
So where do we begin? It seems prudent to provide my definition of social software so we are all on the same page. Social software is any software that enables people to interact with one another. To me there are five broad classes of social software. There is software that enables
Communication (IM, Email, SMS, etc)
Experience Sharing (Blogs, Photo albums, shared link libraries such as del.icio.us
Collaborative or Competitive Gaming (MMORPGs, online versions of traditional games such as Chess & Checkers, team-based or free-for-all First Person Shooters, etc)
Interacting with the aforementioned forms of software is the bulk of the computing experience for a large number of computer users especially the younger generation (teens and people in their early twenties). The major opportunity in this space is that no one has yet created a cohesive experience that ties together the five major classes of social software. Instead the space is currently fragmented. Google definitely realizes this opportunity and is aggressively pursuing entering these areas as is evidenced by their foray into GMail, Blogger, Orkut, Picasa, and most recently Google Groups 2. However Google has so far shown an inability to tie these together into a cohesive and thus "sticky" experience. On the other hand Yahoo! has been better at creating a more integrated experience and thus a better online one-stop-shop (aka portal) but has been cautious in venturing into the newer avenues in social software such as blogs or social networking. And then there's MSN and AOL.
One thing Adam fails to mention in his post is that the stickiness of a platform is directly related to how tightly it holds on to a users data. Some people refer to this as lock-in. Many people will admit that the reason they can not migrate from a platform is due to the fact that they have data tied to that platform they do not want to give up. For the most part on Windows, this has been local documents in the various Microsoft Office formats. The same goes for database products, data tends to outlive the application that was originally designed to process it nine times out of ten. This is one of the reasons Object Oriented Databases failed, they were too tightly coupled to applications as well as programming languages and development platforms. The recent push for DRM in music formats is also another way people are beginning to get locked in. I know at least one person who's decided he won't change his iPod because he doesn't want to loose his library of AAC encoded music purchased via the iTunes Music Store.
The interesting thing about the rise of social software is that this data lock-in is migrating from local machines to various servers on the World Wide Web. At first the battle for the dominant social software platform will seem like a battle amongst online portals. However this has an interesting side effect to popular operating systems platforms. If the bulk of a computer user's computing experience is tied to the World Wide Web then the kind of computer or operating system the browser is running on tends to be irrelevant.
Of course, there are other activities that one performs on a computer such as creating business documents such as spreadsheets or presentations and listening to music. However most of these are not consumer activities and even then a lot of these are becoming commodified. Music already has MP3s which are supported on every platform. Lock-in based on office document formats can't last forever and I suspect that within the next five more years it will cease to be relevant. This is not to say that all people need is a web browser for all their computing needs but considering how much most people's computer interaction is tied to the Internet, it seems likely that owning the user's online experience will one day be as valuable as owning the operating system the user's Web browser is running on. Maybe more so if operating systems become commodified thanks to the efforts of people like Linus Torvalds.
This foray by Google into building the social software platform is definitely an interesting challenge to Microsoft both in the short term (MSN) and in the long term (Windows). This should be fun to watch.