The platform as a promise

In a recent answer on quora, I wrote that I did not believe developers are tempted primarily by economic incentives when choosing which platforms to work on. I suggested that they hire platforms because of their star-making potential and that star-making value is not a something that money can buy. Using Hollywood as an example I suggested that subsidies decrease the perceived value of a talent-oriented platform.

The notion that a platform signals meaning to developers led me to think about how mobile platforms signal meaning to consumers. I have a hypothesis that platforms can and should be treated as brands. This point of view allows platform orchestrators to develop a comprehensive market-driven strategy for platforms that transcends technical debate.

First a word about what a brand is.

Brands are vaguely defined. They are identities, names, symbols or attitudes or all of the above. Marketers struggle to define brand value because they are trying to encapsulate what they sell into a single symbolism. The problem is that there are vast varieties of things being sold. Every product or service has different meaning to buyers and it cannot be captured the same way. Because I cannot rely on a single definition I have to create a specific definition of brand to the context of mobile platforms.

I choose to define brand in this context of platforms as the “promise of the platform“. A platform is a promise that the products will function in ways beyond what’s “written on the box”; that the product is extensible and has value provided by an ecosystem bigger than the original vendor.

For example, although the iPhone is based on iOS platform, iOS is not the brand. “iPhone” encompasses the platform brand and it’s a promise to users that they can expect apps and content and an extended flow of innovation to continue well beyond the initial purchase of the device. This brand value is attached to iPod touch and iPad even though it’s not communicated as a unified platform. In other words, consumers don’t look for “iOS inside” but the implicit value of “there’s an app for that” covers all the products.

When looking at platforms as promises or brands, we can observe how some are more powerful than others.

Symbian or Series 60 was never marketed as a brand and Nokia users are generally unaware of what OS or platform their phone runs. Does Symbian make a promise of an “extended flow of innovation to the device” after the time of purchase? It’s hard to make that promise when you can’t communicate clearly anything but device specs.[1]

Conversely, Android has become a strong brand. The Android label (and mascot) is frequently used by device vendors to signal platform brand value.

How did Google achieve in a year this value with Android while Nokia continued to squander any brand goodwill around Symbian for a decade? The answer lies in marketing decisions. Nokia wanted to focus on the hardware as value (and the Nokia brand as the way that value is encapsulated). Google and Android OEMs wanted to lift their own device brands into becoming smartphone brands and attached the value of Android branding to them.

Which brings me to the question of how to design platforms as powerful brands. Creating awareness of extensible value is the way to signal to developers and all members of an ecosystem that a platform is valuable. Apple did this very well with their iPhone ads which focused on the app value of the product. They showed the product in use and did not rely on metaphors. Developers saw other specific apps being advertised by Apple and it engendered huge star value in the platform. Every developer wanted a shot at being featured in an iPhone ad. The iPhone could and did make stars.

But you can’t make the great promise of the platform without the ensuring consistency, reliability and longevity. Fragmentation, malware, copyright infringement and arbitrary termination amount to the confiscation of platform value by the orchestrator. Poor custodianship results in the destruction of both ecosystem and end user value.


  1. The lack of platform promise for Symbian may also explain why Nokia believes they can sell 150 million Symbian devices which have a deprecated platform. Those devices could be sold as feature phones, not platform products. The challenge for them will be to get a smartphone price for a feature phone product.
  • vangrieg

    I suspect that the value of Android as a brand may be somewhat underestimated. It is strong in that it is very well known, of course, but I seriously doubt it conveys a lot of meaning and/or has a well-defined and entrenched positioning in the minds of the general public. It basically means "non-Apple smartphone" at this time, which is great only insofar as there's nothing else really. There's obviously a very loyal group of followers who are very emotional about it and are very vocal, but I don't think that their share of voice is proportional to Android's share of minds.

    • Hamranhansenhansen

      Not just non-Apple smartphone, but anti-Apple smartphone. Google as the new Microsoft, HTC as the new Compaq, Adobe as the new Macromedia. The problem for Android is they cast Apple as the old Apple, when they are clearly the new Sony.

      • vangrieg

        Whatever, "anti-Apple smartphone" is just as meaningless unless you are somehow religious about all this openness/control stuff.

      • Never quite got the 'Android is open' thing. Yeah, you can download the source code to the underlying OS but most of the top layers are closed and in any case, Google develops the next version of Android without any outside developers getting code in. Open source but closed development.

        The 'Google is Open' idiots are just that.

      • pam

        Open in the sense that you can do whatever you want with it.

  • Luis Masanti

    "How did Google achieve in a year this value with Android while Nokia continued to squander any brand goodwill around Symbian for a decade?"

    I thimk that your answer to this questions forgot the most important issue.
    In between these two events, iPhone's App Store was built.
    The same waym the longing never born Microstoft tablet and the iPad…

    On the other hand, I'm not so sure that the "iPhone is the platform." I think that –as perceived value– the App Store is "the platform." You know that it is in the iPod touch and the iPad… And now, you know that the capabilities/potentials are going into the Mac Store.

    • Hamranhansenhansen

      I think you are right, the App Store (and iTunes Store) is the Apple platform. It's a private/commercial alternative to the public/free World Wide Web. Same 1-click installs as the Web, but the click has a credit card number attached to it.

      Platforms are for building on of course. You see Apple promoting two kinds of building: Cocoa (App Store) and HTML5 (World Wide Web). And you also see developers and publishers gravitating to either one of those two platforms, or both, but for their own reasons.

      I think the reason Android Market has failed thus far (revenues in 4th place behind Apple, Nokia, RIM) is it attempted to be a public/free alternative to the public/free World Wide Web. So it was no alternative at all. It has the main disadvantages of the Web — non-native code, fragmented clients, non-commercial focus (aka "piracy"), spyware, malware, spam, scams — but it doesn't have the Web's advantage of being universal. App Store is also not universal, but it has non-Web advantages: native code, unified clients, commercial focus, and an approval process that provides a layer of protection from spyware, malware, spam, and scams.

      We used to have Mac and PC platforms, and now we have App Store and World Wide Web platforms. Apple's platform position is so strong because Apple Mac OS has been replaced with Apple Mac OS X and Apple iOS, while Microsoft Windows has been replaced by Apple WebKit.

  • Capnbob

    Do you mean overestimated? If so, I would tend to agree. A lots of nerds on nerd sites blowing hard about Android does not make it equivalent to iPhone. A quick check of App Market stats would suggest that Android commands exponentially less value as a brand despite its rocketing unit sales figures.

    • Xavier Itzmann

      Agreed. My sister and her husband got Android phones. She's never downloaded an app. For her, the phone is just a modern-looking feature phone.

      • Yowsers

        I've noticed that same thing when I see someone with an Android phone at parties. You check out what apps they have, which often isn't much, even from the techies among them. And those that they do have are buggy — even (or especially) the camera app. I was happily snapping a few dozen shots of the kids and the new dog, while their Android-owning father had to reboot once and restart the app 2X and got blury shots. Android's app ecosystem strikes me as 'still born' in a certain sense. Or rather it's a step between Blackberry — an email device that makes phone calls — and the iPhone which is a micro-computing app device that makes phone calls (or the 'Appleberry' as my mother calls it).

      • I see my fair share of iPhone users that never download apps too. They've just bought it for the logo.

    • vangrieg

      Overestimated, yes, I haven't seen a "valuation" of Android as a brand, so shouldn't have used that term – something like that (I'm talking about the brand, not the platform as a whole). Wide name recognition doesn't say anything about customers' attitudes, emotional attachment, loyalty, anything of that sort. I don't see it allowing OEMs to price handsets at a premium, or even additional sales effect. If you take the number of Android devices sold and divide it by the number of handset it's on, you'll get sales per model similar to those of WP7, accounting for distribution and availability differences. If you further subtract sales of hits such as SGS (they aren't huge because the phone carries Android, otherwise it would work for others as well), you'll get VERY similar sales per handset. That's a very rough metric, I agree, but it just shows that Android behaves like a typical commodity platform – i.e. its overall sales are a function of number of handsets and distribution rather than the platform's unique branding.

    • davel

      this was great. thank you

  • Sander van der Wal

    "In a recent answer on quora, I wrote that I did not believe developers are tempted primarily by economic incentives when choosing which platforms to work on."

    Horace, could you be so kind as to elaborate on that in a future post? Mainly because I don't believe you.

    I assume you are using Maslow's hierarchy of needs, with being a star is a form of self-actualization.

    It is in fact much easier to become a star on a little-used platform, as there will not be very much of a competition going on. But making a living from that platform is much harder.

    Then there is the competition. Being a star among few is much easier than being a star among many.

  • poke

    I think you've struck upon a nice way of looking at Android. Without wanting to sound too snarky, I'd tend to say Android is, "all the promise of the iPhone with none of the execution." It has the UI, although it's perpetually in a state of "almost there." It has the development platform, although there's a distinct lack of 3rd party application successes. It has the market, although… well, just go take a look at it. Google always has a (industry-redefining!) iTunes-destroyer on the verge of being released. Just wait for the next update. It'll be in that one for sure.

    Android is an extension of the Google brand in many ways. In the mind's of many, it's the "new Microsoft" that will dominate any category it enters and no amount of product failures can seem to put a dent in that perception. Android's brand trades on inevitability. The inevitability of both Google dominating the market and Apple repeating its past mistakes. Google has copied heavily from the Microsoft playbook but, whereas Microsoft always relied on making announcements in the hope that the sheer knowledge that Microsoft is moving into a market will make people think twice about buying from someone else (a strategy that has lost effectiveness in recent years), Google encapsulates its promises in software. They ship a product (usually without much fanfare) that implies a comprehensive platform strategy but then all you get is the product and none of the strategy.

    • vangrieg

      An interesting thing to think about here is that Google's not-so-exciting UI endeavors and the messy Market are probably not so much an execution failure as a result of Google's priorities and modus operandi as a whole.

      If you think about how they make money, it's by being a gateway between a disorganized chaotic mess which is the internet and everybody on Earth with access to internet. They are (consciously or accidentally) recreating the internet in their phone OS, with its anarchy and "business darwinism" because it's essentially who they are. Their primary instrument is being everywhere (browser search bar, phone, TV, refrigerator, anything), and being ubiquitous is so much more important than being polished that they just won't waste time on such minor stuff. They also don't care about differences between customer segments as their purpose is serving each and every living soul on the planet – how can you polish something that's for everybody? And above all – the messier and more disorganized the environment the more familiar and benefitial it feels for them – they genuinely don't get why people talk about fragmentation. So Android is and probably will be huge, but it's not much more of a brand than "internet" is. And it's not a failure on Google's part, it's just what they do for living. They thrive from diversity and complexity, these are the cornerstones of why they are necessary in this world. Branding and image and what not is just fluff for their data-driven "numbers game".

      Microsoft is a totally different company – one of their most used words is "partners". That's who they work for, that's who they get feedback from, and that's why they time after time fail to get the consumer and "miss whole cycles". Their necessity for the end user comes from the mere fact that they manage to be so important for everyone in the food chain. In theory, OEMs could remove Windows and put Linux instead on all PCs, consumers would whine but learn to live with it. It just doesn't happen because everybody is in this Microsoft's web making money. This obviously doesn't work for smartphones, and MS is now trying to do something of epic newness for them – doing a product for "partners" yet trying to market it to consumers. If any platform has a chance of becoming a brand at all, WP7 is it. It's just hard to imagine Microsoft excelling in this area.

      • Del Miller

        Wow. That was a really perceptive take.

  • Luis Masanti

    As reminded by "poke," a platform is build on "delivery," not "promises."

    And that's the difference between Apple and almost all the others: Apple delivers.

    Also, Apple is not afraid of being small in features, but always giving a great user experience.

    See Xoom… great promises of Flash… to be delivered soon!

  • davel

    I would say that the Apple brand has been a continuous thing for 25 years.

    The Android brand 'Droid' was created by Verizon. Not Apple, A guy brand, not a girlie phone, a terminator thing.

    For many people Android is not Apple. It has most of the features but they can rebel against all things Apple.

    So Android, at least in the USA, is a creature of Verizon. Not sure how it plays in the rest of the world. Google had nothing to do with it. Still doesnt in my mind. I cannot think of any marketing campaign by Google to define what Android is.

    • We don't have Verizon in the UK yet the outside of Carphone Warehouse is plastered in big green Androids. Android is pretty strong as a brand outside the US. It's not a Verizon invention.

      • davel

        In talking to people about the Android phones they mention Droid, not Android. I believe Droid is a Verizon trademark. In the US, Verizon spent a lot and time and effort marketing and pushing the Droid brand. There are others in the US to be sure, but Verizon is by far the biggest and most effective.

        I am curious about your situation. Who pushes Android in England and what brand do they use? What is the message? How long ago did the ads start.

      • kevin

        In the US, after the Verizon/RIM Storm debacle, Verizon turned to Android and Verizon's Droid marketing campaign started the Android ball rolling. Verizon worked with Motorola to ensure the Droid device was pretty good (at least better than the quality of those that were previously launched on T-Mobile and Sprint.)

        In all countries, operators without iPhone find Android phones as the only good touch-screen alternative to iPhone. (In the US, Palm was also a promising option for awhile.) Even operators that have iPhone don't want to become too dependent on Apple, for doing so would give Apple too much power, so they also look for alternatives – again, Android is the best touch-screen option. (Blackberry and Nokia E-series were the alternatives for those looking for physical QWERTY keyboards.)

  • You make a very profound observation when you say that a brand is “the promise of the platform.” A brand is really a customer platform, an enabler that can advance customers to new ways of being and doing that hype, symbols and “non-brand” products and services cannot. Strategically, we can define “brand” as a method of creating value that moves customers beyond the reach of competitors. (The brand goal is to differentiate the customer, not the product.) A platform structure is a highly efficient way (but not the only way) of doing this.

    As you note, in a platform (and everywhere else) delivery counts more than promise. In mobile, a wisely-curated platform is a key deliverable. A platform that can't be trusted is a rickety stage.

  • Developer

    Quality developers want a quality platform to work on. iOS provides this. Cocoa touch is custom crafted to make great mobile apps and the iPad and iPhone designs are consistent.

    Contrast that with android which just has a pirated java– which is a horrible language and framework for doing UI work, and a fragmented base of devices which is a source of innumuerable headaches for developers.

    The android store sucking and users not buying apps is just icing on the cake, really.

    I don’t give a damn about being a star. I care about making a living, but even more about working with tools that don’t make me hate my work!

    Developers care about tools above all, and Apple is the only platform in town with good ones. (though Microsoft gets some credit for really trying to provide good tools and nearly making it… They might become good with time.)

    • If it was only about good tools then Nokia would be laughing with Qt Creator and QtQuick…. er….

    • Catalin

      If Android is such a headache why is the second best platform for smartphone consumers? In fact, as I know from Java developers' side, Android as a development platform is a better brand than Cocoa … Maybe JavaME UI framework is not the best (neither the last it isn't), but the Android UI framework make some distinguishable waves (see… sorry that it is bit out aged) …

      • pam

        Android developer environment is really horrible. Qt Quick is so much better. But Android is already out there while Meego might not come at all.

  • kevin

    A brand represents a specific set of values that have been built into previous products of the brand, and are thus expected by purchasers for future products of the brand. In that sense, it is a promise, as people most often have to buy stuff without having gotten to use it extensively; it's a trusted expectation of what I will experience if I buy and use this product.

    Many people know what the Apple brand represents – above all, a simplicity and quality in system design and user experience. However, there are also many who came after the beleaguered Mac days who incorrectly think Apple represents exclusiveness and coolness. For now, it's a small enough contingent, and Apple PR is pretty good at keeping the brand on track.

    As for Android, Google intends for it to represent openness and freedom. However, I think those are too abstract for mainstream consumers. Android's initial use in HTC and Motorola handsets did bring a reasonable level of quality and both modern hardware and software – people could see it represent good value. But with the subsequent uncontrolled use of the Android OS by no-name white box manufacturers making horribly poor quality $100 tablets and $50 (unsubsidized) phones, I think is leading to confusion over what to expect in an Android-labeled device. If one doesn't know what to expect out of a brand, it is no longer a brand – the promise, the trust is gone. I believe Android as a brand is being ruined; at best, it connotes something about modern software, but nothing about the hardware or the rest of the package. The hardware mfrs have little interest in Android PR (as they are mostly competing against other Android-using mfrs); and Google is really poor at Android PR to the mainstream consumer. The lack of verbal direction to counter the spate of poor products leaves the Android brand at risk.

  • Sander van der Wal

    And another thing, if Nokia is right in thinking their users don't care about the platform, then developers have no business doing Symbian stuff the coming two years.

  • chandra2

    The argument about the star value sought out by developers does not fit in well. I am sure developers would like to be featured in Ads but that is not the reason for developing for iOS.

    Other than that, a great explanation on the brand strategies of Nokia, iPhone and Android.

  • O.C.

    Most people have nu clue as to the software their phone runs on. Here in the Netherlands for instance, you see lots of ads for phones, but I have rarely if ever seen the software being mentioned in the add. Whether it be Android, iOS or Symbian.

    You overestimate the interest the average user has in knowing the software their phone works on. Its not that they don't get it. Its just that they don't care. they just want to be able to use their phones and that's pretty much it. A friend of mine has an HTC and I can tell you If I mentioned Android he would think I was talking about a movie!!

    • asymco

      How can you be sure this will not change? If the basis of competition and the basis for value creation shifts to software how can you assume that the brand value will stay with hardware?

      • vangrieg

        This can change of course but wouldn't it require some effort from Google? I'm also not at all sure that the basis of competition is shifting to software. It's akin to saying that the basis of competitions in the car industry is shifting to wheels. People buy phones, and the phones must be capable, finger friendly or what not, which requires a modern capable OS, sure, but the OS capabilities are increasingly becoming (and will be even more) similar. Like I said earlier, I see zero signs of brand effect in "platform-based" phone sales, and Android is moving in a direction opposite from the one that is needed to create some serious positioning and identity.

      • unhinged

        There is an inefficiency in the competition of the market which is the effect of the telcos. Until this influence is removed it is unlikely that the consumers will value the platform; the network connection will remain the strongest factor in device choice.

  • Developer

    I think it is hilarious that aegisdesign tried to rebut my argument by citing even crapper tools… Right after claiming that people buy iPhones just for the logo.

    We can’t expect consumers to understand nuance which is why there are so many non-technical people who think android is open.

    They buy iPhones because they recognize usability and quality. None of the ripoff platforms have either.

  • Why give Quora free content?!?!

    • asymco

      I don't treat my writing as property. I consider it as a way to learn. The more feedback, the more I learn so I prefer to get widely read. I think questions are important. I like Quora because there are lots of questions. See:

  • TN_Finland

    The point about Android's risk of becoming fragmented (both technically and as a brand) is a good one. At the same time, iOS can't take much more market share in smartphones without starting to dilute Apple's brand. No matter whether there will be an iPhone in a lower pricepoint, it won't be a true mass market phone.

    iPhone is cool only as long as it is used by "everyone" in the desirable upper middle-class / bobo-demographic. Once it is really used by everybody, i.e. in the hands of hoi polloi, the brand is in deep trouble, from which it takes years to recover by culling undesirable consumers through restricting their access through distribution and pricing (Burberry, anyone?). Apple could have made cheap Macs years ago, but they have chosen to price it so that a useful Mac costs 50-100% more than a comparable no-brand Wintel computer. This is good for their margins and they are not going to give that up.

    Conclusion: There might have been, and might yet emerge, room in the market for a platform that "just works" and is cheap enough to compete with free Android. Nokia is the only manufacturer who has (or, viewed from 2012, had) market share to independently develop that platform.