Among the words, phrases and acronyms in the Tech worlds “Platform” seems to be a word which seems to grab the headlines. If one listens to any pitch from a start up venture it would be not uncommon to get the “platform pitch”in at least 1 out of 2 proposals. A lazy search on Google on the “Top 20 Tech weary words” fetched me the result that “platform was 3rd in the list . (https://www.businessinsider.com.au/the-worlds-top-20-tech-weary-words-for-2014-2014-5).
There have been words verbalised like “Being Platformed” as well and a host of books on the significance of platform in the Technology world. I will not go into the virtues of platform. I would dwell on how the leaders in respective segments are a few ( a maximum of 3 ) while in the IoT world we seem to have by some counts 170 of them ( McKinsey ) to 400 of them ( Beecham Research).This is definitely a bewildering array to go through and investigate .
What is a Platform – why there are only a few platform leaders ?
Stepping back – different people have different views and meanings of the word “platform”. To get a view of the diversity of platforms we have:
Browsers (Chrome and Firefox) ,smart phone operating systems ( iOS and Android) , blogging (Word Press , Medium ) .Social Media titans (YouTube, Facebook) and even Instagram are described as platforms. Uber, Airbnb and their ilk are widely described as ‘marketplaces’, ‘platforms’ or ‘marketplace-platforms.’ Web services (Google Payments, Amazon Elastic Cloud) and gaming consoles (Xbox, Apple’s ipod Touch, Sony Playstation). One interesting point to be noted that in each category the market is mostly duopolistic .
To accommodate this diversity the safest definition of platform would be as :
- An extensible codebase of a software-based system that provides core functionality provided by the modules that interoperate with it, and the interfaces ( aka Application Programming Interface (APIs)) through which they interoperate. In effect this system abstracts a number of common functions without bringing out the complexity of building and managing them , for the users .
- The goal is to enable interactions between producers and the consumers
- This is enabled through three layers comprising the Network ( to connect participants to the platform), Technology Infrastructure ( to help create and exchange value ) and Workflow and Data ( thereby matching participants with content , goods and services ) .
This definition brings in the 2 dimensions of a platform. One that would be for internal use and the other for external use .
- An internal dimension for building platforms is to ensure all necessary modules interoperate , and
- An external dimension for building platforms is to enable interaction with the outside world and make it as accessible and usable as is possible.
Internal dimension led platforms focus on internal productivity and efficiencies and focus on users. Here the development is internally sourced and is essentially built for internal use . The external dimension led platforms focus on the supply (developer side) and the demand (user side) . Essentially they are sometimes termed as “two-sided” platforms .The development beyond a point is crowd-sourced and they enrich the platform and the platform reaches out to them through APIs.
In most of the cases if the external dimension is well evolved then the internalities come with the efficiencies by default; with respect to design quality , selection of interfaces leading to interoperability , robustness of infrastructure , seamlessness in workflow and data streaming .
External dimension platforms compete for both users and developers
Here one important aspect to be remembered is a Platform may not be ready to provide solutions to contextual and domain specific problem statements. Applications built around the platform do that, these applications help get the Return on Investment ( RoI ) from the platforms .
In any segment you must have seen that the winners are a few ( atmost 2 or 3 , aspirants may be many, who progressively wither away ) .The reasons has been presented above with respect to design quality , interoperability, infrastructure robustness and seamlessness in workflow and data flow and the last but not the least excellent and friendly user interface . Not many can master all the 4 aspects .These help acquire a critical mass of customer base which keeps growing and a duopoly of sorts is created in the market space .
Successful platforms have the ability to support the variety of business use cases in the present and have strive to build the design to evolve over time and be to an extent future ready .
The Bazaar of IoT platforms- The reasons & who would be the winners wading through the maze ?
Now when coming to Internet of Things (IoT) , The IoT movement repeatedly talks about platforms, but those definitions don’t align with any of Uber, Medium or Android. The first issue is interoperability. And none of these align with each other either.
Now let us address the question is the why of “plethora of platforms” in IoT .
It can be seen clearly that a typical architecture of an IoT solution is multilayered. The layers to simplistically put would be Device to Device ( this involves hardware and firmware with Low Range Communication ) , Device to Server ( which would again involve hardware and communication ) and server to server ( which would mean that cloud based application and long range communication would hold the key along with network , data storage and data visualisation ) .
So we see protocols and standards are driven through their origins from communication technologies ( we see Telecom companies like AT&T and Verizon leading here ) , in the data storage area ( we have Amazon , Google leading the way ) , in the application side ( Azure from Microsoft and Thingworx from PTC being the prominent ones ) . Companies which has a library of business use cases with them given the dominance they have in their respective businesses (namely Bosch , GE , Honeywell ) have the ambition to build their community based platforms .Then we have a host of start ups who run a platform per a business use case they address .
So the genesis of the “plethora of platforms” in the multilayered solution stack of IoT . This adds to complexity and hence no one player can be a leader across the layers as on date .
In the coming years it could be reckoned that there would be a shakeout in the market and the platforms could veer around key broad based use cases of remote monitoring and environment conditioning , predictive maintenance and process automation .
The ones which will win the battle of supremacy would have cracked the codes of
- Open interfaces,
- Carrier grade reliability,
- Service levels,
- Scalability and
- And allow for aa seamless integration into the back-office environment which is essential to the enterprise’s business operations.
- With a impressive usability and user interface .
Given the multitier architecture and the attendant complexity it will be a while before a small group of winners starts to bubble to the top . Some of the also-ran aspirants may focus on domains and address a specific part of the ecosystem in which to play or in the industry segments like home or industrial to justify their presence .