The next major platform

A framework for predicting the next big trend

Industry-shifting platform opportunities come along only once every 5–10 years. Fortunately, it’s easy to detect platform shifts before it’s too late to jump on the trend.

The premise: software evolves to meet humans where they are focused. When our attention moves to a new product, a platform opportunity springs up. We’ve seen a number of shifts in the last 3–4 decades. Lucky for us, in this era of rapid advancement we get to learn from the past in compressed cycles.

Rewind

In the 80s and 90s the PC was the computing paradigm. Windows rose up the de-facto OS — it opened its platform and the ecosystem flourished. This Quora post puts it better than I ever could — but in short, Windows won the market by being easy to use, winning a strong initial user base and making development dead simple.

The platform flywheel, once spun up, is very difficult to dismantle. Window’s strong-hold in the PC market can be attributed in part to their combination of great apps (both their own and third party) and easy development.

Connect

As people spent their time on PCs, specifically Windows PCs, the Internet emerged as a way to connect them. This is repeatedly the case with a shift in user-platforms — developers push the original platform’s functionality so far that the next platform is built as an extension or peripheral of the original.

The internet quickly became the center of gravity for human attention — we couldn’t get enough of it (and still can’t). The internet was/is a platform at its very core — only as useful as the things built on top of it. The dot com boom resulted, along with the birth of companies like Amazon and Salesforce. And yes, the dot com bust happened, too. Despite setbacks, the internet continues to thrive and in time…voila, a whole new form factor came along.

Enter smartphones

PCs and the Internet were great — but you couldn’t use them on the go. The smartphone was a brand new way to connect with the internet (and use a phone) anywhere and everywhere. A hardware/software race ensued: Blackberry, Apple, Windows, Android. And Apple, at first reluctant to open its platform, eventually won because of its platform (and yes, I’m grossly simplifying things here. Of course UX, distribution and competitors’ mistakes all played significant roles). Still, there’s no denying that the iPhone was set apart by the platform flywheel — it had way better apps. What’s more, users on iOS were more willing to pay more for these apps, so the developer bias to iOS-first was reinforced through critical growth years.

What’s the cycle?

A simple framework falls out of this exploration:

  1. A product with platform potential emerges: at first this platform will just look like a new product. With the introduction of said product, be it an operating system, device or application, humans start spending an increased amount of time in a novel interface.
  2. The ecosystem responds: time is money — those building software know that keeping their product top of mind is critical to their longevity, so they adapt their products to meet users on the new platform.
  3. The platform flywheel spins up: user-platforms played well are virtuous cycles. Customers adopt a product, developers build useful things for it, and so more customers are attracted. This is only problematic for ad-driven businesses, where apps detract from ad revenue.
  4. The next platform surfaces, eventually, as an extension of the original: either new hardware is introduced, or an ecosystem player becomes so dominant that human focus is shifted into a new product…which, if built well, becomes the next platform opportunity.

A short caveat- this framework only applies to what I’ll call user-platforms. It does not not fit for platforms like AWS, Stripe or Twilio. Those are a different breed. To categorize there are:

  1. Infrastructure platforms, e.g. AWS or Docker.
  2. API Services, e.g. Stripe and Twilio
  3. User-platforms, e.g. Salesforce or iOS

Infrastructure and services platforms make critical hardware/software functionality accessible and cost effective. User-platforms do provide functionality, but they are inherently different because they are built for end-users — not solely as developer tools.

So, the premise for how and why user-platforms rise up is somewhat obvious: human attention is the top determinant of user-platforms shifts. TL:DR; when our attention shifts to a new product, a platform opportunity springs up.

The next platform shift

Now that we’re all looking our phones an average of 90 minutes a day and spend the rest of our time on the internet — it turns out the thing we are doing is messaging. Human time spent is undeniably moving to messaging products, and software is meeting us there.

Messaging is the next emerging platform, and there is a very real ecosystem being built on top of it. The market is in a fascinating position to watch as this shift takes place. Enterprise vs consumer messaging platforms are extremely different — and will have very disparate outcomes, though WeChat is a hopeful result.

Disclaimer: I help lead the platform at Slack, and wholeheartedly believe this is the most interesting shifts taking place in the cloud software landscape.

How does it apply? Too many ways for one post.

You can apply this framework to all kinds of products — from media (YouTube, Netflix — how does this play out?) to the enterprise platform wars. In each case there’s a different flavor and twist on the result.

In the coming weeks and months I’ll be writing more on platform trends — because when I search the internet for learnings, especially on modern software platforms, there isn’t a lot of great content to be found. I was a founding member of Box’s platform team, invested in developer tools at Bessemer Venture Partners, and am now helping build Slack’s platform — so I spend an undue amount of time thinking about these things.

Up next: an exploration of platform types, enterprise vs consumer platforms, how to think about growing an ecosystem, establishing trust and more. If there’s anything in particular you’d like to see, just let me know!