By The Open Group
The word “platform” has become a nearly ubiquitous term in the tech and business worlds these days. From “Platform as a Service” (PaaS) to IDC’s Third Platform to The Open Group Open Platform 3.0™ Forum, the concept of platforms and building technology frames and applications on top of them has become the next “big thing.”
Although the technology industry tends to conceive of “platforms” as the vehicle that is driving trends such as mobile, social networking, the Cloud and Big Data, Marshall Van Alstyne, Professor at Boston University’s School of Management and a Research Scientist at the MIT Center for Digital Business, believes that the radical shifts that platforms bring are not just technological.
We spoke with Van Alstyne prior to The Open Group Boston 2014, where he presented a keynote, about platforms, how they have shifted traditional business models and how they are impacting industries everywhere.
The title of your session at the Boston conference was “Platform Shift – How New Open Business Models are Changing the Shape of Industry.” How would you define both “platform” and “open business model”?
I think of “platform” as a combination of two things. One, a set of standards or components that folks can take up and use for production of goods and services. The second thing is the rules of play, or the governance model – who has the ability to participate, how do you resolve conflict, and how do you divide up the royalty streams, or who gets what? You can think of it as the two components of the platform—the open standard together with the governance model. The technologists usually get the technology portion of it, and the economists usually get the governance and legal portions of it, but you really need both of them to understand what a ‘platform’ is.
What is the platform allowing then and how is that different from a regular business model?
The platform allows third parties to conduct business using system resources so they can actually meet and exchange goods across the platform. Wonderful examples of that include AirBnB where you can rent rooms or you can post rooms, or eBay, where you can sell goods or exchange goods, or iTunes where you can go find music, videos, apps and games provided by others, or Amazon where third parties are even allowed to set up shop on top of Amazon. They have moved to a business model where they can take control of the books in addition to allowing third parties to sell their own books and music and products and services through the Amazon platform. So by opening it up to allow third parties to participate, you facilitate exchange and grow a market by helping that exchange.
How does this relate to the concept of the technology industry is defining the “third platform”?
I think of it slightly differently. The tech industry uses mobile and social and cloud and data to characterize it. In some sense this view offers those as the attributes that characterize platforms or the knowledge base that enable platforms. But we would add to that the economic forces that actually shape platforms. What we want to do is give you some of the strategic tools, the incentives, the rules that will actually help you control their trajectory by helping you improve who participates and then measure and improve the value they contribute to the platform. So a full ecosystem view is not just the technology and the data, it also measures the value and how you divide that value. The rules of play really become important.
I think the “third platform” offers marvelous concepts and attributes but you also need to add the economics to it: Why do you participate, who gets what portions of the value, and who ultimately owns control.
Who does control the platform then?
A platform has multiple parts. Determining who controls what part is the art and design of the governance model. You have to set up control in the right way to motivate people to participate. But before we get to that, let’s go back and complete the idea of what’s an ‘open platform.’
To define an open platform, consider both the right of access and the right to manipulate platform resources, then consider granting those rights to four different parties. One is the user—can they access one another, can they access data, can they access system resources? Another group is developers—can they manipulate system resources, can they add new features to it, can they sell through the platform? The third group is the platform providers. You often think of them as those folks that facilitate access across the platform. To give you an example, iTunes is a single monolithic store, so the provider is simply Apple, but Android, in contrast, allows multiple providers, so there’s a Samsung Android store, an LTC Android store, a Google Android store, there’s even an Amazon version that uses a different version of Android. So that platform has multiple providers each with rights to access users. The fourth group is the party that controls the underlying property rights, who owns the IP. The ability modify the underlying standard and also the rights of access for other parties is the bottom-most layer.
So to answer the question of what is ‘open,’ you have to consider the rights of access of all four groups—the users, developers, the providers and IP rights holders, or sponsors, underneath.
Popping back up a level, we’re trying to motivate different parties to participate in the ecosystem. So what do you give the users? Usually it’s some kind of value. What do you give developers? Usually it’s some set of SDKs and APIs, but also some level of royalties. It’s fascinating. If you look back historically, Amazon initially tried a publishing royalty where they took 70% and gave a minority 30% back to developers. They found that didn’t fly very well and they had to fall back to the app store or software-style royalty, where they’re taking a lower percentage. I think Apple, for example, takes 30 percent, and Amazon is now close to that. You see ranges of royalties going anywhere from a few percent—an example is credit cards—all the way up to iStock photo where they take roughly 70 percent. That’s an extremely high rate, and one that I don’t recommend. We were just contracting for designs at 99Designs and they take a 20 percent cut. That’s probably more realistic, but lower might perhaps even be better—you can create stronger network effect if that’s the case.
Again, the real question of control is how you motivate third parties to participate and add value? If you are allowing them to use resources to create value and keep a lot of that value, then they’re more motivated to participate, to invest, to bring their resources to your platform. If you take most of the value they create, they won’t participate. They won’t add value. One of the biggest challenges for open platforms—what you might call the ‘Field of Dreams’ approach—is that most folks open their platform and assume ‘if you build it, they will come,’ but you really need to reward them to do so. Why would they want to come build with you? There are numerous instances of platforms that opened but no developer chooses to add value—the ecosystem is too small. You have to solve the chicken and egg problem where if you don’t have users, developers don’t want to build for you, but if you don’t have developer apps, then why do users participate? So you’ve got a huge feedback problem. And those are where the economics become critical, you must solve the chicken and egg problem to build and roll out platforms.
It’s not just a technology question; it’s also an economics and rewards question.
Then who is controlling the platform?
The answer depends on the type of platform. Giving different groups a different set of rights creates different types of platform. Consider the four different parties: users, developers, providers, and sponsors. At one extreme, the Apple Mac platform of the 1980s reserved most rights for development, for producing hardware (the provider layer), and for modifying the IP (the sponsor layer) all to Apple. Apple controlled the platform and it remained closed. In contrast, Microsoft relaxed platform control in specific ways. It licensed to multiple providers, enabling Dell, HP, Compaq and others to sell the platform. It gave developers rights of access to SDKs and APIs, enabling them to extend the platform. These control choices gave Microsoft more than six times the number of developers and more than twenty times the market share of Apple at the high point of Microsoft’s dominance of desktop operating systems. Microsoft gave up some control in order to create a more inclusive platform and a much bigger market.
Control is not a single concept. There are many different control rights you can grant to different parties. For example, you often want to give users an ability to control their own data. You often want to give developers intellectual property rights for the apps that they create and often over the data that their users create. You may want to give them some protections against platform misappropriation. Developers resent it if you take their ideas. So if the platform sees a really clever app that’s been built on top of its platform, what’s the guarantee that the platform simply doesn’t take it or build a competing app? You need to protect your developers in that case. Same thing’s true of the platform provider—what guarantees do they provide users for the quality of content provided on their ecosystem? For example, the Android ecosystem is much more open than the iPhone ecosystem, which means you have more folks offering stores. Simultaneously, that means that there are more viruses and more malware in Android, so what rights and guarantees do you require of the platform providers to protect the users in order that they want to participate? And then at the bottom, what rights do other participants have to control the direction of the platform growth? In the Visa model, for example, there are multiple member banks that help to influence the general direction of that credit card standard. Usually the most successful platforms have a single IP rights holder, but there are several examples of that have multiple IP rights holders.
So, in the end control defines the platform as much as the platform defines control.
What is the “secret” of the Internet-driven marketplace? Is that indeed the platform?
The secret is that, in effect, the goal of the platform is to increase transaction volume and value. If you can do that—and we can give you techniques for doing it—then you can create massive scale. Increasing the transaction value and transactions volume across your platform means that the owner of the platform doesn’t have to be the sole source of content and new ideas provided on the platform. If the platform owner is the only source of value then the owner is also the bottleneck. The goal is to consummate matches between producers and consumers of value. You want to help users find the content, find the resources, find the other people that they want to meet across your platform. In Apple’s case, you’re helping them find the music, the video, the games, and the apps that they want. In AirBnB’s case, you’re helping them find the rooms that they want, or Uber, you’re helping them find a driver. On Amazon, the book recommendations help you find the content that you want. In all the truly successful platforms, the owner of the platform is not providing all of that value. They’re enabling third parties to add that value, and that’s one reasy why The Open Group’s ideas are so important—you need open systems for this to happen.
What’s wrong with current linear business models? Why is a network-driven approach superior?
The fundamental reason why the linear business model no longer works is that it does not manage network effects. Network effects allow you to build platforms where users attract other users and you get feedback that grows your system. As more users join your platform, more developers join your platform, which attracts more users, which attracts more developers. You can see it on any of the major platforms. This is also true of Google. As advertisers use Google Search, the algorithms get better, people find the content that they want, so more advertisers use it. As more drivers join Uber, more people are happier passengers, which attracts more drivers. The more merchants accept Visa, the more consumers are willing to carry it, which attracts more merchants, which attracts more consumers. You get positive feedback.
The consequence of that is that you tend to get market concentration—you get winner take all markets. That’s where platforms dominate. So you have a few large firms within a given category, whether this is rides or books or hotels or auctions. Further, once you get network effects changing your business model, the linear insights into pricing, into inventory management, into innovation, into strategy breakdown.
When you have these multi-sided markets, pricing breaks down because you often price differently to one side than another because one side attracts the other. Inventory management practices breakdown because you’re selling inventory that you don’t even own. Your R&D strategies breakdown because now you’re motivating innovation and research outside the boundaries of the firm, as opposed to inside the internal R&D group. And your strategies breakdown because you’re not just looking for cost leadership or product differentiation, now you’re looking to shape the network effects as you create barriers to entry.
One of the things that I really want to argue strenuously is that in markets where platforms will emerge, platforms beat product every time. So the platform business model will inevitably beat the linear, product-based business model. Because you’re harnessing new forces in order to develop a different kind of business model.
Think of it the following way–imagine that value is growing as users consume your product. Think of any of the major platforms, as more folks use Google, search gets better, the more recommendations improve on Amazon, and the easier it is to find a ride on Uber, so more folks want to be on there. It is easier to scale network effects outside your business than inside your business. There’s simply more people outside than inside. The moment that happens, the locus control, the locus of innovation, moves from inside the firm to outside the firm. So the rules change. Pricing changes, your innovation strategies change, your inventory policies change, your R&D changes. You’re now managing resources outside the firm, rather than inside, in order to capture scale. This is different than the traditional industrial supply economies of scale.
Old systems are giving away to new systems. It’s not that the whole system breaks down, it’s simply that you’re looking to manage network effects and manage new business models. Another way to see this is that previously you were managing capital. In the industrial era, you were managing steel, you were managing large amounts of finance in banking, you were managing auto parts—huge supply economies of scale. In telecommunications, you were managing infrastructure. Now, you’re managing communities and these are managed outside the firm. The value that’s been created at Facebook or WhatsApp or Instagram or any of the new acquisitions, it’s not the capital that’s critical, it’s the communities that are critical, and these are built outside the firm.
There is a lot of talk in the industry about the Nexus of Forces as Gartner calls it, or Third Platform (IDC). The Open Group calls it Open Platform 3.0. Your concept goes well beyond technology—how does Open Platform 3.0 enable new business models?
Those are the enablers—they’re shall we say necessary, but they’re not sufficient. You really must harness the economic forces in addition to those enablers—mobile, social, Cloud, data. You must manage communities outside the firm, that’s the mobile and the social element of it. But this also involves designing governance and setting incentives. How are you capturing users outside the organization, how are they contributing, how are they being motivated to participate, why are they spreading your products to their peers? The Cloud allows it to scale—so Instagram and What’s App and others scale. Data allows you to “consummate the match.” You use that data to help people find what they need, to add value, so all of those things are the enablers. Then you have to harness the economics of the enablers to encourage people to do the right thing. You can see the correct intuition if you simply ask what happens if all you offer is a Cloud service and nothing more. Why will anyone use it? What’s the value to that system? If you open APIs to it, again, if you don’t have a user base, why are developers going to contribute? Developers want to reach users. Users want valuable functionality.
You must manage the motives and the value-add on the platform. New business models come from orchestrating not just the technology but also the third party sources of value. One of the biggest challenges is to grow these businesses from scratch—you’ve got the cold start chicken and egg problem. You don’t have network effects if you don’t have a user base, if you don’t have users, you don’t have network effects.
Do companies need to transform themselves into a “business platform” to succeed in this new marketplace? Are there industries immune to this shift?
There is a continuum of companies that are going to be affected. It starts at one end with companies that are highly information intense—anything that’s an information intensive business will be dramatically affected, anything that’s community or fashion-based business will be dramatically affected. Those include companies involved in media and news, songs, music, video; all of those are going to be the canaries in the coalmine that see this first. Moving farther along will be those industries that require some sort of certification—those include law and medicine and education—those, too, will also be platformized, so the services industries will become platforms. Farther down that are the ones that are heavily, heavily capital intensive where control of physical capital is paramount, those include trains and oil rigs and telecommunications infrastructure—eventually those will be affected by platform business models to the extent that data helps them gain efficiencies or add value, but they will in some sense be the last to be affected by platform business models. Look for the businesses where the cost side is shrinking in proportion to the delivery of value and where the network effects are rising as a proportional increase in value. Those forces will help you predict which industries will be transformed.
How can Enterprise Architecture be a part of this and how do open standards play a role?
The second part of that question is actually much easier. How do open standards play a role? The open standards make it much easier for third parties to attach and incorporate technology and features such that they can in turn add value. Open standards are essential to that happening. You do need to ask the question as to who controls those standards—is it completely open or is it a proprietary standard, a published standard but it’s not manipulable by a third party.
There will be at least two or three different things that Enterprise Architects need to do. One of these is to design modular components that are swappable, so as better systems become available, the better systems can be swapped in. The second element will be to watch for components of value that should be absorbed into the platform itself. As an example, in operating systems, web browsing has effectively been absorbed into the platform, streaming has been absorbed into the platform so that they become aware of how that actually works. A third thing they need to do is talk to the legal team to see where it is that the third parties property rights can be protected so that they invest. One of the biggest mistakes that firms make is to simply assume that because they own the platform, because they have the rights of control, that they can do what they please. If they do that, they risk alienating their ecosystems. So they should talk to their potential developers to incorporate developer concerns. One of my favorite examples is the Intel Architecture Lab which has done a beautiful job of articulating the voices of developers in their own architectural plans. A fourth thing that can be done is an idea borrowed from SAP, that builds Enterprise Architecture—they articulate an 18-24 month roadmap where they say these are the features that are coming, so you can anticipate and build on those. Also it gives you an idea of what features will be safe to build on so you won’t lose the value you’ve created.
What can companies do to begin opening their business models and more easily architect that?
What they should do is to consider four groups articulated earlier— those are the users, the providers, the developers and the sponsors—each serve a different role. Firms need to understand what their own role will be in order that they can open and architect the other roles within their ecosystem. They’ll also need to choose what levels of exclusivity they need to give their ecosystem partners in a different slice of the business. They should also figure out which of those components they prefer to offer themselves as unique competencies and where they need to seek third party assistance, either in new ideas or new resources or even new marketplaces. Those factors will help guide businesses toward different kinds of partnerships, and they’ll have to be open to those kinds of partners. In particular, they should think about where are they most likely to be missing ideas or missing opportunities. Those technical and business areas should open in order that third parties can take advantage of those opportunities and add value.
Professor Van Alstyne is one of the leading experts in network business models. He conducts research on information economics, covering such topics as communications markets, the economics of networks, intellectual property, social effects of technology, and productivity effects of information. As co-developer of the concept of “two sided networks” he has been a major contributor to the theory of network effects, a set of ideas now taught in more than 50 business schools worldwide.
Awards include two patents, National Science Foundation IOC, SGER, SBIR, iCorp and Career Awards, and six best paper awards. Articles or commentary have appeared in Science, Nature, Management Science, Harvard Business Review, Strategic Management Journal, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal.