The Digital World is All Platforms

This afternoon I had the fortune of attending the Media Future Now event held at Verizon’s offices in downtown Washington, D.C. Much of the early conversation revolved around topics related to media, advertising, and the impact of the economy. There were also some great stories from David Almacy who was the White House Internet and E-Communications Director from 2005 to 2007.

While I’d love to talk about the impact of social media on government and politics, what really struck a chord with me was the demo of FIOS following the panel. It was simply a relatively basic overview of how FIOS compares to existing services. The bottom line is that FIOS is fast. The implications of having access to such high speed internet on a residential basis is transformative in itself.

Imagine running a video-based media company out of your basement. While there are currently ways to do that, it’s not on the level that extremely high speed internet can provide. There are some significant hurdles facing FIOS adoption though and Verizon is taking a serious risk by investing so heavily in FIOS. We also discussed rough capital expenditure numbers and it sounded as though they are spending somewhere in the ballpark of 20 percent of their annual capital expenditure on FIOS deployment.

Regardless of the financials and the implications of very high speed internet access, what stuck most with me was the implications of FIOS as a platform.

The First Platforms

Early on there were only a few platforms for distributing and running software. You would go out to the store and buy software which ran on your operating system. Windows and Macintosh were the largest players and while there were plenty of alternative platforms (OS2, etc), these two became the dominant forces when it came to the world of operating systems (the primary platforms at the time).

As Steve Ballmer stated, “Developers, Developers, Developers” were the most critical variable for success. The more developers you had, the better. Much of this still rings true but slowly we are witnessing the disintegration of platforms from the software and a distribution of software across multiple platforms. As far as I’m concerned, personal computers were the first digital platforms.

Television As a Platform

When Facebook released their platform over a year ago, developers flocked to the site as they had the opportunity to attract the millions of users on the site. At the time, the number of users was somewhere around 25 to 30 million users. Since then the site has grown to over 110 million users (more than impressive considering this was less than a year and a half ago).

What if Comcast suddenly brought together all the tech bloggers to announce that all Comcast digital cable would soon become an open platform for developers to build on? That would be a pretty big deal considering they had 16.3 million digital subscribers as of June this year. While it’s not as fast growing as Facebook it is clearly a substantial number of users and when considering the reach of the iPhone, cable television is clearly another distribution channel for developers.

Well for those looking to distribute their digital products via the television, you will soon be able to on FIOS as they are also opening up their system.

The Digital World is All Platforms

When it comes to the digital economy, it is still about digital goods and services. These goods and services (or “digital products” as I’ll call them from now on) can be paid for or can be advertising supported. Digital products need a platform for delivery. Those platforms range from the internet browser, to a computer operating system, to a mobile device, video game console, DVRs, advanced remote controls, etc.

The Rise of Platform-Independent Applications
What is significant about the past few years is the shift from platform dependent developers to platform independent developers. For many years you couldn’t run Microsoft software on Macintosh and vice-versa. Ultimately, you still can’t but Microsoft and Apple have adapted and have built software custom to each operating system.

There will always be rules from one platform to another just as there are rules from one shopping mall to another. The main difference is that we are starting to see the rise in platform independent developers. LivingSocial is the prime example for a platform independent company. The company started with social recommendations on Facebook and has now ported those applications to MySpace, Bebo, hi5, and other OpenSocial compatible sites.

Then last night the company released the LivingSocial iPhone application. This is a new type of development company. They build digital products which are accessible across any platform as long as users are there. If Comcast decides to launch a platform I can just about guarantee that LivingSocial and companies like them will rush toward the opportunity to build applications for Comcast.

It’s simply another channel for distributing their digital products. One other thing that I should have included as a platform for LivingSocial: the internet. Yes they are on social networks which reside on the internet, but they also have a destination site which is part of the broader internet. Google by the way is rapidly becoming the single point of navigation for the general internet.

Back to the point though! If I’m a shoemaker, I’m going to take the opportunity to sell my shoes in as many places as possible, as long as it’s feasible for my business to do so. As the barriers to develop across platforms diminish, we are witnessing the growth of platform independent development.

Still Extremely Early

While we are currently embedded in what I consider a platform revolution, there are so many variables present that it is practically impossible to comprehend what the future holds. What I do know though is that there is a movement toward platform independence and movements like “Data Portability” are a significant part of this movement.

The new standards being developed like OpenSocial each provide applications with their own containers for distributing their digital products anywhere on the web. Soon enough though, these standards could move across platforms and devices. Google Android is an example of a platform which will be device independent and anybody developing for the iPhone platform or the Android platform will have to develop separate code.

Unfortunately, a future in which there is complete platform independence (write once, run anywhere) is like like the existence of a utopian society: I can’t see it happening. There are great movements though that are in the right direction and while we may never get there, the removal of barriers is helping to create a new environment.

What Does This Mean for Businesses?

So after that long technical rambling about the dynamic between platforms and digital products that are distributed on them, I’d like to take a shot at explaining what this means for companies looking to find their way in this complex environment. As I’ve posted in my series on the social web economy, there are only a few types of companies all of which are focused for one single purpose: the distribution & sale of products.

Whether it’s advertising companies, analytics services, agencies (which assist with branding, marketing, and promoting promoting the products), media companies, product companies, or the platforms themselves the goal has always been the same. The goal is to build products and distribute them to as many people as possible.

There are two types of product companies: physical/in-person product companies (which provide physical goods and services) or digital product companies (which provide digital goods or services). Physical product companies use the platforms and products on the web to reach their consumers. In other words, it’s for advertising. Nothing else.

For digital product companies, as I said previously, you are either selling your product or advertising on it (there of course is the hybrid model but I’ll ignore that for simplicity). These companies must focus on distributing the product to all places no matter what their business model is.

While I could go in depth as to what model works best for each type of company, the most important thing is building your reach through the available distribution channels. The key is not just reach though, for brands the key is relevance. You may have you advertisement displayed to millions of people but are those the right people for your product or service? Relevance is what matters.

Conclusion

After my long rambling on platforms and the implications for businesses, I hope that there was at least a few valuable takeaway points. I believe that we are in the midst of a huge shift toward open platforms which cater to platform-independent developers. As this shift continues we will see the emergence of ubiquitous digital products which provide cross-platform accessibility (enough buzz words for you?).

In essence, the digital world is a group of platforms and it is our job to figure out what platforms make the most sense for our products and focus on obtaining maximum reach through leveraging those platforms.