Of Platforms, Operating Systems and Ecosystems

In the earnings Q&A Stephen Elop used the word ‘Platform’ once, ‘Operating System’ three times and ‘Ecosystem’ 15 times.

Though they seem interchangeable, the three phrases have significant differences in meaning. Briefly put, a Platform is a business model concept,  an OS is a technology concept and an Ecosystem is a marketing concept.


A platform, as the New York Times recently pointed out, can take many forms. The Barbie doll is a platform as is the US Interstate Highway system. These are products or infrastructure that allow other products to be ‘built on top’ and can thus charge rents from them. When building platforms, a company needs to think of how to make their work foundational so it can support other structures. Other examples of platforms are browsers, the Apple 30 pin dock connector, Game Consoles and Facebook.

In terms of innovation theory, a platform is a signal to industry that the company is willing to allow its innovations to be extended and thus share in the creativity of adopters. There is however a down side: platform adopters may also create so much value that users will shift loyalties to the layers above the platform thus restricting the freedom of the platform owner to modify or modernize the underlying platform.

This loss of control over the roadmap often forces platform owners to institute draconian limits to the extensibility of the platform (e.g. the iPhone developer restrictions.) In other cases, platform owners have acquired and integrated various core apps or services so that the platform and core apps can be upgraded in sync. This was the impetus to the development of Microsoft Office. Office was motivated by a need to prevent Lotus from slowing the upgrade path for Windows not, as it’s assumed, to create a new revenue source. However, again, the effect is the destruction of the ability to innovate on that particular area (no new Word Processor or Spreadsheet programs for 20 years).

It takes a great deal of work to platformize a product. I would guess 10x more than a similar product which does not allow collaborative innovation. Platforms are difficult to build, require delicate balancing acts to maintain but can be enormously valuable due to network effects.

Operating System

In contrast an Operating System has a very clear technical definition. It has been extended to include many applications and services, but it’s basically the control system of a computer. An OS may or may not be a platform. For example embedded operating systems typically do not have APIs to support applications. Some basic mobile operating systems support applications through a sandbox like JaveME (in this case the platform is Java) and are therefore also not platforms.

A company licensing an OS may not accept the platform with the license or may not consider it valuable. It’s even possible to license an OS and consider the platform value to be a liability to your own strategy (arguably HP fits in this scenario as regards to Windows. HP had its own operating systems and tried to build alternative platforms in spite of Windows).

An example of an OS with minimal platform value may be WebOS which has a very limited API for native applications.


The word ecosystem as it applies to technology was coined by Palm to describe the app vendors that built apps and the accessories for its Palm Pilot. This is not a common word as it’s largely equivalent to Platform. The subtle difference is that it’s used in a marketing context to signal platform value. Having a large ecosystem implies the acceptance of a platform by a large base of developers.

For example a platform may not have a viable ecosystem if there are few developers and/or little economic value ‘on top’ of the platform. Symbian is often cited as being a decent OS, but a poor platform with a mediocre ecosystem.

So these three phrases are overlapping but have a different tone. Although perhaps unintentional, Elop’s emphasis on Ecosystem vs. Platform or OS, might signal that what’s missing from Nokia’s strategy is the motivation or encouragement of developers to participate. My prediction of WP7 licensing may not fit well with this deficiency but perhaps Microsoft’s ecosystem building potential is still greater than Nokia’s.

I should also point out that Nokia’s platform strategy has also included an intermediate layer called Qt that enables cross-platform ecosystems, thus making the OS irrelevant. Technically this may have merit, but it’s a long haul to getting an ecosystem for it.

  • Wilhelm Reuch

    If I remember correctly Microsoft said that C++ SDK was available for WP7 – but only for selected projects.

    That would make it possible to adapt Nokia Qt for WP7 (Qt already support Windows Mobile).

    I am more doubtful it would be possible with the Java-based Android Frameworks. There is the NDK fpr Android (C/C++) but it has limited access to the Java Frameworks.

    So my guess is that Nokia goes with WP7 and not Android. If it goes anywhere.

    • There is already a Qt port for Android using the NDK.

      There is already a Qt port for Windows CE. It's official from Nokia I think. Qt 4.7.1 even got Windows CE specific fixes.

      WP7 is maybe a bit more of a problem as the interface is weird and doesn't it use Silverlight or something nasty like that for the UI? As you can tell, my interest in anything from Microsoft is less than zero. 🙂

  • raycote

    So it is all about the platform race for network-effect profits?

    Everyone now gorks the platform as network effect. It has become a wide spread business meme. As Mcluhan might say, the platform as network-effect has graduated from it's role as hidden ground into an important, formally recognized, figure in the minds of every management team.

    Today the bar for a successful, platform as network effect, strategy has been set much higher.

    Today's ubiquitous speed, data density and social-graph complexity require a much tighter organic integration in order to create a truly competitive, flexible, easy to use, network effect, platform strategy.

    We live inside our new digital nervous system, instantly interconnecting everyone and everything. This creates an environment that by absolute necessity demands ever tighter compression, of ever more complexity, into ever more streamlined, easy to use, hardware/software user-interface packages.

    I thing these are the platform challenges that will separate the Apples from the Googles. Good luck to all the participants and may "Organic Process Literacy" be with you!

    • Fred

      "neurons that fire together wire together"

  • raycote

    I >>>>> THINK <<<<<< I would like an edit function here!

    • Joe_Winfield_IL

      @raycote, if you sign up for IntenseDebate, you will be allowed to edit your comments; it's the reason I created a profile. You will not be allowed to edit once a response has been posted, but I typically notice my typos almost immediately after submitting the comment.

      • Kristian

        I notice typos the same second I hit the Submit Comment button. I should also create the account asap.

  • KenC

    "The catalyst of an ecosystem could be considered as making sure the right conditions are formed in the right companies, work in such a way that alternatives emerge in a marketplace that may not exist today"

    I think Elop sees Nokia as the "catalyst" for WP7's ecosystem, creating a viable alternative to iOS and Android. Nothing else makes as much sense to me. We know Nokia has been trying to catayse its own ecosystem for a while and it hasn't really worked.

  • HTG

    Are we sure that Elop is clear about what he thinks he is talking about? I'm not trying to be facetious, but given his comments in Horace's earlier post you do have to wonder…..

    Guess we wait for Feb 11 and see how much sense it all makes then…

  • Charel

    I miss the contend providers in the discussion of the ecosystem. They are not developers but are very important in the development and acceptance of for instance Apple’s TV2. They are also the reason for the failure of Google’s TV.

    • Hamranhansenhansen

      One thing that is not talked about much is how big Apple is in content creation. There are many all-Apple music albums and movies. For example, a music album made with Logic Pro on a Mac and then purchased on an iPhone from iTunes Store, or a movie cut with Final Cut Pro and bought from iTunes and watched on Apple TV. The MPEG-4 file format is an open standard QuickTime file. Apple has a lot of respect among content creators. The App Store is iTunes for apps, the app platform respect is just an extension of the content platform respect.

  • Deep. And at the same time understandable by non techies like me.
    Will you put all of this in a book for us one day?

  • "An example of an OS with minimal platform value may be WebOS which has a very limited API for native applications."
    Can you elaborate on that?

    • Hamranhansenhansen

      WebOS apps are not native, they are just Web apps, running on the Apple WebKit browser engine. So WebOS and its app developers are exploiting the Web platform and Apple's browser platform, not a WebOS platform. An app built for WebOS can be ported to iOS or the Web over a cup of coffee. There is nothing sticky about WebOS. Palm opened up some native API's to make it easier to port iPhone games, but again, exploiting an Apple platform, not creating their own. And they are always way, way behind Apple, so an app built for Palm ports easy to iPhone, but not the other way around.

      • WebOS apps are programmed in Javascript, but that doesn't mean they're not "native".

        They still use native APIs for phone functions, and a native UI toolkit to the WebOS platform called Mojo — and in the future, the Enyo toolkit.

        Just because WebOS apps are in Javascript, doesn't mean they're not "native". They won't run on any other platform besides WebOS.

        Because they are in Javascript, however, they are easier to port. But "easy to port" says nothing about whether it uses the platform's native capability's through the platform company's direct bindings — and in this case, the answer is yes, they do.

      • You can also use the Palm WebOS PDK to develop native 'plugins' for WebOS in C/C++.

        That sounds minor but when you realise that the PDK has libraries like SDL and OpenGL, you've got access to graphics/audio hardware directly and it makes porting SDL based games easier.

        I only know this because someone noticed that the Palm Pre hardware and the Nokia N900 hardware were so similar and that both supported SDL. From there it was an easy step to get native WebOS SDL binaries running on the N900.

        PDK docs at

  • Fred

    Thanks Horace for the clarifications.

  • Scottj

    I'm having a rare moment of disagreement with Horace, who mentions the word "customer" not once.

    "Ecosystem," to me, equates to "product" –because that's what the customer is attracted-by and is buying-into. Apple is unique (so far) in successfully melding content, content-delivery, user interface, apps, underlying software and hardware in the consumer's mind. That's what gives the iExperience its special zing. The QED comes in observing the iPhone's hockey-stick growth, which inflected sharply upward a full year after its introduction when the App Store happened. Everything else had been in place, but suddenly (to the customer) the iPhone was the visible tip of a whole iceberg of fluid functionality. So, as Horace says, a platform might not have a viable ecosystem, but one might interpret what he's written as signaling a marketing flaw. I contend it's a shortfall of product vision.

    Of course, ideally there'd be no daylight between "marketing" and "product vision," but that just underscores my point.

    Another, niche-ier example is LabVIEW with its instrument library, circa 1986.


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  • chandra2

    Ecosystem is not just the marketing concept. It has a technical meaning too aside from the platform. The participants of the ecosystem form their own layer surrounding the platform and there are businesses that form to support the other players in the ecosystem. It is the network effect but an emergent one, not necessarily directly planned by the platform provider but none the less, it enhances the value of the platform. The ecosystem promotes a level of cooperative competitiveness among the members of the ecosystem and in that sense, it is more than simply a marketing concept.

    The ebay ecosystem is an example of this.

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  • Thank you for this post. Most people conflate these terms, a point that I make in The Age of the Platform ( I could go on and on about this, but keeping these terms separate can only promote understanding and progress.