The difference between Platforms and Ecosystems

Dion Almaer
Oct 14, 2019 · 6 min read

tl;dr: “What’s the difference between a platform and an ecosystem?” This simple question resulted in an ecosystem strategy to connect sub-ecosystems that work on the Web. What if we lean in and deeply connect our tools, services, frameworks, and platforms….. and align on the right incentives for a healthy web?

NOTE: This was originally posted on my own corner of the Internet.

I work in a product area of Google that is called Platforms and Ecosystems, and I sometimes reflect on the question “what’s the difference between a platform and an ecosystem?”

There are many, but I have found myself diving into the differences in complexity of a rich ecosystem.

With platforms we often think in layers, each layer building on each other, and the interfaces mostly being at the boundaries. This is a nice abstraction when done right, as it isn’t leaking all over the place.

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The “layers” view of a platform

An ecosystem often forms on top of a platform, or if it gets connected enough, you get combinations. Sub-ecosystems form that have their own fractal view of the world, and they may connect with multiple technical platforms (e.g. the React ecosystem touching Web, iOS, Android, Desktop, ….).

The Web is complex enough that it is one of the canonical examples of an ecosystem that has many sub-ecosystems. You can even slice “the web” itself into pieces including the technical client platform that is embedded in almost every native platform there is (WebView anyone?) as well as the connected open Web, where many technical stacks are available to run as well.

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A week ago, I had the pleasure of spending some time with representatives from major global CMSes, and they are a fantastic example of sub-ecosystems.

We spoke of ecosystem loops, and how an ecosystem has so many more connection points that are not restricted to layers, and are multi-directional.

These connection points, when strong, can enable a healthy web ecosystem. This realization has changed the way that we work, thinking about we can truly enable healthy connections.

Foundationally, we obviously want to build web platform APIs that work for as many ecosystems as possible, whilst also push the web. We also work to build clear guidance on web.dev that helps developers understand what is possible on the web across key pillars and principles. We want to deliver new and better tools that help you create, debug, and deliver actionable insights to you (e.g. DevTools, Lighthouse, CrUX).

Speak the right language

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One of the problems we see, is that there is often an impedance mismatch between the layer of abstraction that a developer uses (e.g. using a particular framework, set of libraries, or backend infra) and the feedback that tools and services surface.

We are on a journey across our portfolio to fix this, and the best example is probably Lighthouse:

  • Lighthouse plugins allow you to build on the platform to offer your own audits and rulesets, enabling you to enforce you own criteria or requirements. For example, a framework may have important linting tests, or an ecommerce platform may have retail oriented audits.

Elsewhere we are thinking of similar evolutions:

  • web.dev offers framework specific guidance, but what if the base guidance changed based on your needs?

I am excited to work with the ecosystem to enable this kind of intelligence for our collective developers.

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Show me the incentives!

We can make life much better for developers, but we have also learned that this isn’t enough to fully elevate the web together.

We want to see the flywheel moving nicely on the above ecosystem loops, with users engaging with high quality content from developers and their sites and platforms.

As platforms, how do we enable this outcome? It’s hard, but we have learned a lot from the work that the ecosystem did to move to HTTPS.

Moar TLS!

It may be hard to think back to the days when HTTPS wasn’t the norm, and only 30% of traffic was secured. How could we make it the vast majority? I remember hearing thought such as: “it can’t be done!”, “people just don’t actually care enough!”, “it’s too hard!”

In retrospect, it’s interesting to reflect on the parts and pieces that I think collectively drove things forward:

#1 Knowledge and Insights
There was a lot of content on *why* this is important, and *how* to do it. I remember it being really quite hard to do, and also waking up in a sweat on a couple of occasions with my brain racing: “did my certificate expire?

#2 Tooling
The ecosystem jumped in to help make it MUCH easier. LetsEncrypt changed the game, and servers and hosts jumped in too.

#3 Demand
Now it’s easier, and it’s the right thing to do, but companies have huge backlogs. How do we make “the right thing to do” blindingly aligned to users and the company?

We need the right incentives, and this was the final puzzle piece. How do we reward developers that do the right thing? Some examples here are:

  • Browser UI surfacing quality: At first browsers changed their UI to highlight the good (e.g. showcase “secure”), and then…. over time…. deliberately…. switch to the point where the default is secure and we highlight the insecure

Moar Incentives!

How do we learn from HTTPS and bring this to the other areas of quality such as performance?

We will make sure that:

  • We will be clear about the metrics that we think represent quality

How can we build connections that will strengthen us all? Do you see anything we should be doing? I am all ears.

Ben and Dion

now: Google, formerly: Walmart Labs, Set Direction…

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