Google and platforms

When I teach about platforms, Google is right up there in the examples. The search/advertising two-sided market is possibly the most successful in history (rivalling Windows). While it has had its challenges, Google’s approach to advertising — opening it up with tools for the long-tail of merchants as well as the long-tail of content providers — built an online advertising industry out of nowhere.

So it is somewhat surprising to read this “family intervention” from a current Googler claiming that Google does not get platforms. It was accidentally published on Google+ and remains there. Here’s the basic line:

We don’t understand platforms. We don’t “get” platforms. Some of you do, but you are the minority. This has become painfully clear to me over the past six years. I was kind of hoping that competitive pressure from Microsoft and Amazon and more recently Facebook would make us wake up collectively and start doing universal services. Not in some sort of ad-hoc, half-assed way, but in more or less the same way Amazon did it: all at once, for real, no cheating, and treating it as our top priority from now on.

But no. No, it’s like our tenth or eleventh priority. Or fifteenth, I don’t know. It’s pretty low. There are a few teams who treat the idea very seriously, but most teams either don’t think about it all, ever, or only a small percentage of them think about it in a very small way.

Not surprisingly, Google+ comes up for special attention — mostly because it appears that Google have not engaged developers and also that within Google they are not “eating their own dogfood.”

I’m just frankly describing what looks like to an outsider. It looks childish. Where’s the Maps APIs in there for Christ’s sake? Some of the things in there are labs projects. And the APIs for everything I clicked were… they were paltry. They were obviously dog food. Not even good organic stuff. Compared to our internal APIs it’s all snouts and horse hooves.

That is, unlike, say, Microsoft, Google does not require its internal developers to use the tools that it gives out publicly. From my perspective, that isn’t an obvious proposition for platform success but it is an interesting observation.

Interestingly, Wave is thought of as a platform strategy although with platforms it is all about expectations and surely its quick death did not bode well.

Ironically enough, Wave was a great platform, may they rest in peace. But making something a platform is not going to make you an instant success. A platform needs a killer app. Facebook — that is, the stock service they offer with walls and friends and such — is the killer app for the Facebook Platform. And it is a very serious mistake to conclude that the Facebook App could have been anywhere near as successful without the Facebook Platform.

Buzz passed away last week too.

Anyhow, I’d recommend reading the whole thing as much for its description of Google as for its comparison with Amazon. For example,

I’m not really sure how Bezos came to this realization — the insight that he can’t build one product and have it be right for everyone. But it doesn’t matter, because he gets it. There’s actually a formal name for this phenomenon. It’s called Accessibility, and it’s the most important thing in the computing world.

The. Most. Important. Thing.

If you’re sorta thinking, “huh? You mean like, blind and deaf people Accessibility?” then you’re not alone, because I’ve come to understand that there are lots and LOTS of people just like you: people for whom this idea does not have the right Accessibility, so it hasn’t been able to get through to you yet. It’s not your fault for not understanding, any more than it would be your fault for being blind or deaf or motion-restricted or living with any other disability. When software — or idea-ware for that matter — fails to be accessible to anyone for any reason, it is the fault of the software or of the messaging of the idea. It is an Accessibility failure.

Like anything else big and important in life, Accessibility has an evil twin who, jilted by the unbalanced affection displayed by their parents in their youth, has grown into an equally powerful Arch-Nemesis (yes, there’s more than one nemesis to accessibility) named Security. And boy howdy are the two ever at odds.

But I’ll argue that Accessibility is actually more important than Security because dialing Accessibility to zero means you have no product at all, whereas dialing Security to zero can still get you a reasonably successful product such as the Playstation Network.

Again, there is some harshness here. Google have done a great job of being accessible in places. Somehow we persist with Maps despite the fact that the location data is often wrong. Why? Because it is easy to access. Google Scholar is a masterpiece of easy to use and is changing scientific rewards in the process. Finally, the set of tools being built off a one-Google-login are also testaments to ease-of-use but they are no Facebook in that regard. What is interesting is that Google do so well in places and so poorly in others. This suggests that platforms are not part of their DNA. Getting there will be a challenge.

2 Replies to “Google and platforms”

  1. I think you might be using the terms platform and accessibility somewhat differently from Steve. As someone with an academic econ background who then became a software guy, I can attest to this leading to some confusion.

    The funny thing is that they are closely related. The encapsulatedness and functional coherence of software.platforms tend to facilitate the two-sidedness and network effects of economics.platforms. But it’s only a tendency.

    Steve’s point is that by making sure all software development consists of software.platforms, Amazon gets more “bites and the apple” to produce economics.platforms.

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