If there’s one trendthat I’ve noticed about any of the successful Internet businesses of the past decade or so is that they tend to be platforms on which others can build their business. Sure there are many highly successful companies that operate in a closed fashion but the trend towards a more open web is undeniable. Nearly every successful Internet based company allows some form of interoperability with the wider world allowing anyone to leverage the platform for their own purposes. Thus today for any fledgling start up the choice on whether or not to open up your service for others to use has already been made for you, but that doesn’t necessarily mean its a bad thing.
There are many great examples of companies as a platform dating back to the early days after the dot com bust. One of the examples that sticks in my mind is eBay which started out as a simple way for anyone to sell their unwanted goods online. Quickly though people realised that eBay was in essence a cheap online shop front, much cheaper than many of the alternatives available at the time. This quickly snowballed and many niche businesses found their home on eBay using the brand to get exposure and the platform to grow a business that wouldn’t have been possible before.
The examples flow thick and fast for nearly all of the current Internet giants. Facebook has shown that whilst its core of replicating your friendship online remains it’s now a gaming platform and promotion network. Twitter owes quite a lot of success to its wide open API which has generated hundreds of quality applications, drove adoption of the service and makes it the de facto target for any Internet mash-up (even Geon!). So why does being an open platform do so much for driving adoption of a service?
Primarily it appears to be due to the amount of free development that one can receive by making their services available to developers. Twitter for the longest time didn’t have an official mobile application, arguably the killer app for something that’s based around short frequent updates. Still that didn’t mean there were a lack of clients available for it like Echofon, Tweetdeck and Brizzly. Opening up their API meant that they could focus more on improving the service and developing new ideas rather than having to spend additional resources bringing their platform to where it was needed. This forms a positive feedback loop that enables the underlying platform to improve whilst ensuring that it still remains relevant to its users.
Of course this all relies on the idea that your service provides something of value to your users. For a lot of companies the services that they provide start out closed off in order to ensure that it functions as expected. Early on development time is at a premium and the additional resources required to ensure the platform is stable can outweigh the potential benefits of doing so. However once a critical mass of users is crossed it makes sense to open it up in order to drive adoption. A great example of this is Gowalla who only recently released a full API after being available for about 2 years.
For someone like myself who is seeking Internet fame and stardom the idea of being a platform underpins many of the decisions I make when developing a service. You see whilst I may think I know what people might want there are so many things that I just don’t think of when I’m elbow deep in my code. In fact about half of the features in the current version of Geon have come just from talking the idea over with my friends and people who’ve been in the business for some time. Keeping my service open means that should an enterprising user find something lacking they’re able to build it hopefully bringing more users to my service and giving them a little Internet e-cred.
Does this mean that every service that isn’t a platform is doomed to failure? Absolutely not. There are many things where an open API simply isn’t required like if the company themselves provides products that cater to their user’s needs succintly. Still the writing is on the wall for those who build things on the Internet and the more open your application is the more likely it will be picked up by the wider world. Google VP Andy Rubin said it best with the words “Open usually wins” and the recent decade of the Internet seems to agree with him.