Platform vs Application

1/19/2004 6:44:41 AM

Platform vs Application

I am building a desktop application that has a good potential as a platform, but it won't start out as a platform. (In case, you don't know the difference: An application is an end in itself such as a wordprocessor or spreadsheet. A platform is an operating environment like Windows, IE, or Notes, or even Word and Excel through VBA, where third-party applications, plug-ins or addins can run inside.) Developing a platform requires promoting the platform to third-party developers and lots of hand-holding from training to marketing.

In my MBA program, I watched a couple of experienced, smart developers, working feverishly for three years to create a platform for developing games for GameBoy; eventually, they closed the company, Saddlefish Entertainment. In hindsight, they should have acted more like component providers and changed their business model.

One thing that I learned from Microsoft is that platforms are difficult to create and maintain, even for a "monopolist" and even when the technology is free--no royalties or upfront costs. There is a division of Microsoft devoted to evangelism. A company needs to promote every new technology it develops, which isn't easy, but, over time, Microsoft has developed a system that maximizes success. Articles and books are written on the subject. Microsoft trains developers with its own MSDN program and conferences like TechEd and PDC. Microsoft also identifies ISVs who are early adopters of the technology and grants these adopters free publicity in press releases, ads, events and on the website. For example, every VS.NET package contains a catalog of third-party components to support those ISVs promoting the .NET platform; and just recently, Microsoft launched a CodeWise Community program to support and promotes websites that specialize in .NET development.

A platform often needs to be pervasive before anyone will write for it; so typically, those early platforms that eventually become successful usually start out with a set of useful and complete applications out-of-the-box. Windows, for example, began life with its umbilical cord attached. It was more a set of dynamic libraries than an operating system. The first few versions of Excel shipped with a runtime version of Windows 2.0--essentially, the OS was bundled with the application! Microsoft had to write its own wordprocessing and spreadsheet applications to give Windows credibility, despite its success with MSDOS.

Just because Microsoft can ship a technology in Windows or Office, does not necessarily mean it will be used. There are a number of obscure technologies in Windows that have nonexistent adoption such as Pen for Windows. Office is probably the only existing application, which has code, through unused, written explicitly for that API.

With Microsoft's first foray into a graphics API, WinG, Microsoft did find early adopters like Humongous Software, but ultimately WinG was not successful. Game developers had their own custom libraries and were not willing to give up performance to be a better Windows citizen. The next incarnation, DirectX did succeed because it provided developers direct access to the hardware, and also made it easier to take advantage of hardware acceleration.

The existence of adequate tools is also important. Even OLE might not have succeed without the tool support like MFC.

There are a number of current technologies such as the Ink and Mobile APIs, which have yet to become widespread. Consider this: If you have been following the blog activity around the PDC, can you point to one blog entry on any new Mobile API discussed at PDC? There was an ENTIRE track dedicated to Mobile technology, on par with Yukon, Longhorn, and Whidbey. Point made.

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My name is Wesner Moise. I am a software entrepreneur developing revolutionary AI desktop applications. I worked as a software engineer in Microsoft Excel group for six years during the 1990s. I worked on PivotTables and wrote the most lines of code in Excel 97-- about 10 times the median developer. I have a Harvard BA in applied math/computer science and a UCLA MBA in technology entrepreneurship. I am a member of the Triple Nine Society, a 99.9 percentile high-IQ society.

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