It is my perhaps not so humble opinion that the internet will continue to evolve as the platform for social networking. The early successes and leading sites like Facebook that have gained traction have an opportunity to be part of the broader ecosystem but I disagree with the opinion of some of my peers that one particular company will dominate social networking. The desire to be the platform and the glory that comes with it seems to encourage every successful entrepreneur to declare his technology, website or tool to be the platform.
Lately, there is been a lot of discussion about Facebook and its platform ambitions in particular. Fellow Irregular, Dennis Howlett has a post on ZDNet today nicely summarizing some of the discussion.
What is a platform and how do I build one quickly?
I define a platform as a set of tools, technology or more broadly any layer that allows new products or services to be built with an order of magnitude less resources than was possible before the platform.
Excellent examples of platforms include railway network, power grid, internet, telephony network, etc. In the technology realm, platforms that have made an impact include mainframes, databases, operating systems, email, etc. For example - before the railway network, if you wanted to build a power plant or a factory, you had to lay down the tracks, buy rail engines and bogies, etc. and all the costs had to be borne by one single entity.
It takes a lot of time and effort to build a platform. Most importantly, all platforms start out as applications solving a particular business or technical problem - in other words, platforms evolve from applications. Computers started out as specialized calculators to perform census or scientific calculations and over several decades generalized to what we call computers. Similarly, road networks evolved over 100+ years as people built roads from point A to point B - till the 'network effects' kicked in and Eisenhower launched the famous Interstate project.
Do you remember the previous platforms? AOL??
Many online businesses have thought they can short circuit this process and become the platform. Remember, when AOL was the dominant internet (with its own domain name system or AOL Keywords) or Amazon was the platform for online shopping. A single business entity has advantages of speed and single minded-ness that it can leverage to provide a compelling solution rather than wait for the ecosystem to evolve but eventually the broader system catches up and overtakes the giants.
So what are the underlying issues Facebook is addressing. As quoted on the ZDNet blog, I think the following are the principles underlying a next generation social platform :
- People want online identities to establish trust-based professional and personal relationships. FaceBook provides this but I believe in the long run a third party validation system could provide you with a ‘universal’ identity (with multiple faces/avatars/usernames) to conduct business over the wider internet.
- People want control over who connects to them and when. FaceBook, email and GoogleGroups provide this in different ways.
- People want a publishing platform. Unlike email, this is information or opinion you want to share but don’t want to push in an email. Blogs, MySpace, FaceBook, Twitter, YouTube, etc all do this. Email and IM are not good at this.
- Plus all the basic goodies like document sharing, managing relationships (invites, forwarding), messaging, etc.
I believe Facebook shows us in a small way what would be possible if we solved some of these challenges. But if you think Facebook is the final answer, then you may end up feeling like people that bet on MySpace as the social networking platform or AOL as the internet. Not very smart.
What do you think about Facebook? Is Google the real platform? What about Cisco & WebEx? Or Microsoft?