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Understanding IT Platforms and Apple's Platform Strategy

Posted Mar 09 2011 12:00am

The definition for an "IT platform" seems to have changed somewhat over the years. I was under the impression previously that it referred mainly to hardware (e.g., the PC as a platform for Windows) but today it seems to encompass primarily software. A recent blog note by Aleem Bawany about this topic struck me as right on target and also provided some keen insights into the Apple strategy (see: Apple’s Ultimate Platform Strategy ). Below is an excerpt from it

I have written about the Platform Strategy before, a remarkably potent strategy if you can get it right. Linux and Microsoft Windows are both platforms because they allow others to build on top. The web browser is also a platform. Facebook became a platform when it decided to allowed third-party applications to be built on top of it. It’s possible to build a platform on top of other platforms, and occasionally the platform that sits on top gets the upper hand. Web browsers for example, sit on top of operating systems.... As browsers continue to advance in capabilities (video, offline mode, built-in storage) they can usurp even greater chunks of functionality originally provided by the operating system. Since browsers work across all popular platforms, users may not ultimately care whether their laptop is running Windows or Mac, so long as the browser works fine and allows them to conduct their daily activities.... Flash is capable of doing more than the browser can do on its own.....Most video is still served using Flash, which the new HTML5 standard hopes to remedy by providing its own video decoder. Java also had similar ambitions of becoming the platform that sat atop all other platforms. Had it executed well, it would have been possible to write applications once in Java and then run them on all other platforms....And so it is with Apple’s iPhone and iTunes platforms.  Currently, Apple does not want its platform to be displaced by another platform that sits on top. That’s the reason why Steve Jobs so vehemently rejected Adobe Flash. If Flash were enabled on the iPhone, it would be possible to download applications written in Flash and run them on the iPhone. In fact, Adobe Flash already has thousands of games waiting to flood the iPhone if only it were possible. Applications sold on iTunes would face some serious competition if Flash were allowed on the iPhone. Adobe could then build its own store and its own music and video download services. The same holds for Java which is also banned on the iPhone.

This description of a platform could not be stated any clearer --it's a product/system like Windows, Internet Explorer, Adobe Flash, or Java, upon which the developer or competitors can build new applications or other software. Control of such a platform enables a company to control the products that are subsequently built on top of it unless and until one of them itself constitutes another platform, allowing this development cycle to continue.

This endless cycle reminds me of the Hindu concept that the world rests on the back of a huge turtle. Someone then asked, what supports this huge turtle? The answer: it's turtles all of the way down (see: Turtles all the way down ). Needless to say, Apple will do anything legal (? illegal) to protect its various platforms, which include the iPad, iPhone, iOS, iTunes, and the myriad apps written for its hardware platforms and which generate a 30% profit margin for the company. Control the platforms and you control the revenue stream. However, Steve Jobs can't really say that this is the real reason why the iPad does not support Flash. It might upset some customers. All he needs to say is that it's lousy software and that he is pursuing their best interests by not allowing it to be installed on the iPad.

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