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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.

Notes:

  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.