Should You Build Your Product on a Proprietary Platform?

A potential client of mine had a great idea: They were going to build the next great product (let’s call it WidgetFoo), and it was going to be social for enterprise. So, we sat down to have a high level architecture discussion. How were we going to build this thing?

Oil Drilling PlatformBefore I go further, let me say for the record: No, the product’s not a widget, but since they’re in the middle of building it right now, I can’t actually tell you its name or idea. N.D.A.

One of the executives spoke up. He’d been at a conference where Salesforce.com was pitching its development platform. This “Force.com” thing sounded like it could really help the product, he said. With the product’s enterprise focus, the team already knew it was going to have to integrate with Salesforce, so why not integrate really tightly? Plus, the Force.com folks would help promote WidgetFoo through case studies and sponsorships at various trade events. Then the director of Social Media spoke up. She’d been doing some industry research, too. Since at its heart WidgetFoo was really about social, she thought maybe we should make it a Facebook app. That way it would be right there for everyone to use.

This opens up an interesting can of worms: Should you build your application on a platform that belongs to another company?

Background

Every application is ultimately built on a platform. Websites are built on the browser platform. Installed software is built on the Windows or Linux platform. Usually, we refer to these as technologies more than platforms, because ultimately we have to choose one of them. Proceeding without a baseline technology is simply not possible.

There’s an additional option, however. Many companies — like Salesforce.com, Facebook and Google — offer platforms that provide additional benefits though they also impose additional constraints.

For the purposes of this article, we’ll call the first set technologies, and the second set platforms. Let’s compare the two.

Technologies

  • Are commonly available.
  • Are a requirement to enter a market (e.g., if you want software that runs on Windows, you must use Windows).
  • Generally don’t require specific permission to use.

Platforms

  • Are provided by a single company.
  • Provide tight integration with the company’s other offerings (e.g., Google Apps allow automation of Google Docs).
  • Generally take a share of revenue.
  • Often offer a marketplace or app store.
  • Require a license or other development agreement.
  • Frequently come with co-marketing opportunities.

The Lure of Platforms

Platforms — like Google Apps, Force.com or Facebook — hold a lot of appeal. They offer many potential benefits. Let’s look at the main ones.

Rapid Time to Market

Platforms like Force.com or Google Apps provide a lot of pre-built technology that you can simply start using. For example, a single Google App API call can create a contact or respond to a calendar invite. That’s a lot easier than building an interface to each Google offering yourself. In extreme cases, some platforms can build basic applications without writing any code at all. All of the platform’s offerings represent features that your team doesn’t have to build, and that helps you get to market faster.

Easy Access to Many Users

Using a platform gives you access to its distribution method, whether it’s an app store, module market or whatever. Typically that will include credit-card processing and/or billing as well as downloading of the app itself. That’s a fair amount of overhead that magically disappears when you use a platform. Without doing anything at all, your app is in front of many people. In part, the successful platforms work because they have millions of users — and that means millions of potential users for your app, instantly.

Instant Reputation

Simply by being in the app store, your product has a large company’s stamp of approval. It’s not going to trigger security warnings when users install it, and it’s not going to make potential users suspicious. Instead, it’s another cool thing that’s clearly safe to use because it’s been approved by a big brand name.

The Downfall of Platforms

Of course, all those benefits come at a price, and that price can be pretty steep. Let’s look at the dark underside of building your product on a platform.

Expensive Revenue Sharing

The first cost of using a platform is simply that: the cost. Most platforms take a percentage of revenue, up to about 30 percent. That’s a big chunk of each sale.

Your Product’s at Another Company’s Mercy

Once you’re committed to a platform, it’s hard to change. So if the platform decides that an extra security assessment is required, you’ll have to do it. If the platform removes functionality, well, I hope your app didn’t need it. If the platform starts rate-limiting requests, your app will have to change to batch requests or just slow down. If the company stops supporting the platform, well, that stinks for you. In short, you’re stuck on the platform roadmap, whatever it is. And not having control of your own future is a scary feeling.

Difficulty Crossing Platforms

All the things that make it easy to get up and running on a platform make it harder to get off of it later. If you decide you need a second offering, you’re going to have to replace or provide a lot of functionality yourself. The second implementation isn’t necessarily going to be as quick or easy as the first.

Choosing to Use a Platform — and Which One to Use

Using an application development platform can be a great strategy, as long as the benefits exceed the drawbacks. Just make sure that you’re making a conscious choice based on market and technical merits, not just because some sales guy wooed you.

As for my potential client, they ended up deciding that neither the Facebook platform nor Force.com gave them what they needed and that building on one would make integrating with the other very difficult. So they’re building a standalone Web application that integrates with Facebook and Salesforce, but doesn’t use either platform. We’ll have to wait and see how their choice turns out.

Image: 123RF

Comments

  1. BY RobS says:

    Good thought-provoking article.
    However, I don’t think the platform drawbacks are as bad as they sound. For example, people have dealt with proprietary platforms for a long time. When you first got a phone, you were tied into the phone company and if you wanted to go another way, you could build your own infrastructure of wires to talk to your friends, or try walkie-talkies and not be controlled by the payments required to use the infrastructure.
    Here, at least you only pay a portion of your sales (after the initial buy-in cost for being in the Apple Store, etc.) and keep the rest of the sales for yourself.
    And if the big guys go away, its probably because they got bought by another big guy, at which time your app is likely to be obsolete.
    As you said, it’s a business decision on how to go, but for the smaller guys, the platform is probably a great way to start out to build revenue.

  2. BY daniel says:

    “They were going to build the next great product (let’s call it WidgetFoo), and it was going to be social for enterprise. So, we sat down to have a high level architecture discussion. How were we going to build this thing?”
    You are using a product creation and development methodology that is well suited for when one is doing the known, but in this case, they are developing for the unknown. It doesnt matter how great the architecture is, or if they get to market on time, or if it is wrapped up in a proprietary system, if hardly anyone uses it.
    It is a completely different development methodology for situations like this and the decision on how tightly to integrate with another platform is made by measuing user response to various test products.
    Check out the book “Lean Development” as a place to start.

  3. BY Eric Dynamic says:

    No, you should not develop for proprietary platforms. That only encourages the creation and continuation of proprietary platforms, which is a game of local Napoleons trying to seize the market in their name alone. For example, in the article it was asked “should we develop WidgetFoo as a Facebook App?”, and the answer is clearly NO, since the use of WidgetFoo would then be limited to users of Facebook (that portion of the world that the Facebook Napoleon has conquered.) Facebook != the world, no matter how much they would prefer that they were.

    I believe in OPEN systems available to EVERYONE. Yes, folks, I’m a Socialist, and have no apologies to make for wishing to see an OPEN world dominated by NO ONE. Oh, I can develop for the i-phone as long as Apple has its hands on my genitals? Well, then I won’t develop for the i-phone. The only way to stop this stupid greed-driven balkanization of the market is to refuse to support it with one’s money or actions. Just tell them NO, I will not contribute to anything that forces people to interact with X Corp against their will.

    Any arguments against this position that refer to “where the money is” only prove my point more conclusively. The Open-Source world is the common person’s introduction to the BENEFITS of SOCIALISM, the philosophy that People are more important than Money and that Life is about enjoying Life, not a pyramided scramble for Wealth and Control.

    People should be working to build a global community of friends so that we can get rid of governments that keep trying to divert our taxes into needless wars (and that keep telling us our worth depends upon being ‘worth’ more than others.) When we can finally get rid of the stale ‘only competition matters’ mindset, then maybe we will deservedly get a world where we can let the good times roll.

    And then I can reply to Brad De Long without having to join pathetic Facebook. See http://thankmefornotkillingyou.com/?page_id=48 for more about that.

    • BY RobS says:

      Eric, while I admire your convictions, I’ve always wondered how you survive if all you do is play all day and don’t make money to buy things (since that’s how our current society works.)

      However, I agree with your point that creating something for a specific platform limits your options. That said, if 90% of the world uses that platform (e.g. Microsoft Windows) is it worth wasting your time making something compatible with everything else in the world (e.g. Apple and Linux)?
      And what is your incentive to do this anyway? It doesn’t put food in anyone’s mouth and doesn’t give them clean water or air. However, if it can generate revenue that can then be used to get those things, it at least allows you to survive while you figure out how to change the world for the better…

      • BY Eric Dynamic says:

        Notice your several implicit assumptions – which constitute the mindset I argue against.

        First, who said anything about “playing” instead of working? I was talking about development, which is work, not play.

        Next, you confuse the profit motive with the flow of monetary activity within the economy. If my company makes widgets for people to use, those widgets perform for the public whether I required to make a profit from that manufacture – OR NOT.

        Next, what IS my incentive? 96% of all the world’s email is handled by Sendmail, which was and remains FREE to the public. If I were Eric Allman, I think PRIDE at having so tremendously enabled humanity with my software would easily be seen as an incentive equal to any profit motive: ‘/I/ did that, I created the world’s email railway.’ Not a bad epitaph even if he doesn’t die “rich”.

        Next, you overlook that we easily address the issue of support for those doing the open-source work by issuing government subsidies; we institutionalize the ‘contribution’ mechanism to eliminate its haphazardness and so provide a reliable guarantee of reward for the efforts expended.

        Now let’s look at the “winner take all” mindset. Windows occupies 90% of the world market – why? In fair part ONLY BECAUSE (!) this “everyone does it” is the immediate reply to “why do anything else?” MSware is at best mediocre and is obviously a threat to the operation of the Internet as a whole. It IS the reason we live with oceans of spam and massively-distributed internet criminal activity. I have called for the elimination of all use of MSware having any access to the net. Do that and we will be able to eliminate almost all spam in a couple months; we ISPs had nearly _eliminated_ spam by 1998 – and THEN the bot-nets arrived, thanks to MSware’s perviousness. As I see it we live in a world now where 95% of the public drives around in poorly-maintained $300 Yugos when the public Could be driving around in FREE Mercedes, but for their SLOTH to bite the bullet of exactly only one more (shallow) learning curve to be rid of the old technology – and of course, being endlessly propagandized by the profiteer (using the PUBLIC’s money) that the $300 system is “the only way to go.” Yes, since there isn’t PROFIT in encouraging the use of open-source software, it has to be left to ENTERPRISE, being CONSCIOUSNESS and an INNER WILL to make things better. Can we do that much? I think we can.

        Is it worth the time to create an open, interoperable world? Obviously so; it has already been created: Apache + PHP + MySQL drive much more of the world than MSware-anything does and those are open-source and FREE. The missing component is the public will to financially support the developers of that over the profit-seeking industries. Do this an you will have what amounts to a second ‘computing tehnology’ explosion similar to the one that originally introduced the PC to the masses.

        The final thing to point out is that YOU ARE LABOR. If you are not a major shareholder in the profit-sharing of the enterprise, then OTHERS are reaping the vast majority of the revenues in THEIR pockets based on YOUR labor, for which you are obviously not being fairly compensated. Who should “be rich” from Google Maps? Brin and Page? Or the people who ACTUALLY did the work?

        I hope, with what I have said, you begin to see through the falsity of “reality” the system imposes upon us. The future belongs to the conscious and those who pay attention. The way our society thinks about economics is up to us Citizens to CHOOSE; never confuse WHAT IS, with WHAT MUST BE. We do not have to live with the crappy world they have handed us; we can do better, and I say, that IS the real work of the world – to do better than we have so far done. The next “cool cellphone app” making 50% profit for the phone maker and only 50% for the developer has nothing at all to do with producing a revolution in human consciousness that the whole game is just silly and needless to begin with.

        The simple hint is that the loudest voices in favor of the greed-driven system are those of the people who have won the most from that mindset, and they don’t even Begin to care about you or the society you live in.

        • BY Eric Dynamic says:

          Note: I said 96% of the world’s email is handled by Sendmail, not that 96% of MTAs _ARE_ Sendmail. 80% of the MTAs are Sendmail and almost all the rest are Postfix (again open-source and FREE.) The 96% figure is arrived at as follows: The probability that Sendmail did NOT handle the email on either end, is (1.0-0.8)*(1.0-0.8) = 0.04 = 4%. Therefore the probability that your email was handled on one or both ends by Sendmail is 96%.

        • BY RobS says:

          Whew! that’s more than a mouthful to digest and respond to.
          First, let me apologize if the message came across wrong–it was not meant as an attack but rather an inquiry as to how to make things work without money.

          Quick thought…if everything is free, I propose that we will lose everything…the Internet will go down because the greedy telecom industry will stop their operations; intel will stop producing chips and computers will never progress; MS, Apple, Oracle will shut down and (while initially the computer industry will thrive) the software industry will go away for lack of financial incentive or i-shops where people can cell app (oh, wait, the networks are gone) but we can sell on CDs, but wait, manufacturers of CD materials will stop producing quality discs, etc, etc.

          In addition, most of the free stuff out there, from what I can tell, was financed by the industries that you hate (and I also hate what they’ve become) or were funded by govt’s which are struggling with money and are rarely funding anything these days because of lack of tax dollars because the LABORERS are not getting paid and therefore not paying taxes.

          I agree that the LABORERS are financially abused, and I’m almost prepared to become a farmer so I don’t have to worry about that, but I’ll miss my computer “play” (which is computer work to me since I enjoy it so much, paid or not)

          • BY Eric Dynamic says:

            I apologize for being a bit stiff – I didn’t as much feel attacked as that I perceived what I think are common misunderstandings. But you still seem to have some:

            When did I say there would be NO MONEY? A bunch of hacks (see Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek) claimed that Socialism couldn’t work because it would eliminate the market. Well, that’s nonsense (see Fred Taylor and Oskar Lange.) The “market” can remain as one way people can indicate what they want.

            I tend to think “Communism” when I think “free”, and that is a fine system – too. Notice this: “free” is abused by Google et. al. in offering “free” email and ISP services. Google et. al. don’t give a crap that they have put thousands of small ISPs out of business. That is clearly an abuse within Capitalism, Google et. al. do this to grab “market share”, by hook and crook, and the services are NOT in fact “free”: “free” means “unencumbered” – but Google et. al. use these services to make the users ADVERTISE for them – by branding their services. That is an encumbrance. For the services to be truly free, Google et. al. must obtain NO BENEFIT from offering them! You would then ask, why would they offer free services if they got no benefit from doing so? But in asking that question you have proved that the services are not in fact “free”. All “free” really means in this context is that they don’t cost MONEY – but they DO cost SOMETHING, it’s just not immediately tangible. The final proof, if you need it, is that Corporations are required by law to make PROFITS, so if they can justify so-called-free services it means the net dollar benefit to them exceeds the value of the services they offer – i.e. they ARE making money off you – or they damned well wouldn’t do these things. The correct way to offer “free email services” would be for the government to provide them – and the government wouldn’t need to advertise, or scrape the users. So Google et. al.’s so-called-free services are actually Trojan Horses. And yet notice how few people complain about that, tsk tsk. Your fellow Americans have been led by the propagation of a MYTH, that anything offered over the Internet, must be “free” – that myth began when in the very earliest days of the Internet, HTTPS and other necessary technologies were not yet ready for prime time. But that was fixed almost immediately, and everyone knows this if you have to pay to get songs from Apple or get news content from the New York Times. Yet we lazy, greedy Americans still PRESUME that anyone charging for services offered is some sort of offensive chump to be defeated. All that tells you is that Americans do not really believe in Capitalism – they would RATHER HAVE COMMUNISM, in fact, where things are in fact “free” in the sense of, I can use/consume whatever it is, WITHOUT PAYING MONEY for it. And you don’t see their consciences bother them that SOMEONE ELSE has to pick up the bill. So, shame on our hypocrisy.

            But this is a reflection, not just of base human nature, but the fact that the vendors have refused to pass along economies of scale to the consumer. We see fit to rip off songs because we know that the unit cost to do so ought to be miniscule. When Microsoft spends, say, $10,000,000 to develop the next version of Word, but KNOWS that it will sell 100,000,000 units, anyone can see that the unit cost ought to be _more like_ $0.10 than the $100 the jerk corporation charges. So we rip them off and shoot them a _well-deserved_ bird.

            Why do you keep insisting that ONLY PROFIT can provide PAYMENTS? The Telcos are OBSOLETE. We should have FIBER nationwide and THEY won’t give it to you because they want to leverage the $billions they’ve spent on DSL, for a million years. They keep pretending that “wireless” means a damned thing. But 99.8% of all useful work is done by people at FIXED LOCATIONS – their desk at home or their desk at work, and those locations are EASILY FIBER-WIRED. It will cost a lot, but it would obviously be damned well worth it. So let’s GET RID of the telcos/cablecos and have the GOVERNMENT do this work and “own” the fiber – and charge COST plus maintenance for the service, voila, SOCIALIZED TELECOMMUNICATIONS and service to your desktop at home or work will be at TEN GIGABITS PER SECOND – to START with! And we pay for that in TAXES. And taxes pay the salaries of the workers and buy the equipment needed. I see no problem with this – at all. We live with an ALBATROSS SYSTEM because the telcos rely on our false belief that “only Capitalism can perform”; but what are we getting from them? Wowie, 5G up next – to deliver speeds over wireless that the Japanese had TWENTY YEARS AGO!! So to hell with “Capitalism.” The rule is: once it has been COMMODIFIED, it should be SOCIALIZED. Why? Because by definition, commodification has ELIMINATED profits – and _your STANDARD Economics textbooks make this very clear_.

            Why should Intel stop producing chips? Who says they won’t be COMPENSATED for the work they do? The difference is they won’t be compensated far above the VALUE of their services. Remember LABOR and that “employers” HATE LABOR. But 100% of the people who work at Intel ARE LABOR – even the CEO. The ONLY people who profit are the SHAREHOLDERS and THEY DO NO WORK!! The only reason they “get to play” is that they originally ponied up the DEVELOPMENT CAPITAL NECESSARY to produce an original product. We are essentially paying them a vast overhead of profits for the mere use of ANONYMOUS MONEY. Okay: so let’s get rid of FINANCE CAPITAL provided by banks and have the GOVERNMENT do that instead. Everyone in fact gets paid “industry standard” just as they do today – why not? They’re DOING WORK. They’re LABOR. If anything, having the government PAY INTEL TO DEVELOP AND PRODUCE, saves money over the current for-profit system, and we could reduce the PRICE of the product because we no longer have to pay PROFITS into the price. The only people who would lose, are the fat-cats that live on interest from LOANS, which is all that finance capital is. And remember that those fat-cats do no more than sit on their asses watching the money roll in. No technological benefits and they DO NO WORK. Read P. J. Proudhon’s “Property Is Theft” to see how that works.

            Our current system funnels CONTROL into very few hands. As I said, why should Page and Brin get filthy rich when all the brainwork is really being done by OTHERS? Their search laurels expired long ago. Now all Google is good for is pasting advertising on every square centimeter of reality and I claim that is of NO BENEFIT TO SOCIETY – but the MONEY calls the shots, NOT PEOPLE and not people’s ACTUAL NEEDS. Believe me when I say that we do not need MORE INCENTIVE TO CONSUME. We have more crap than we can use, pouring out our ears. The need for continuous growth is another MYTH, yet Capitalism depends on it to survive – and we get cyclic economic COLLAPSES because of the ILLOGIC of the structure of our economy. You show me why we cannot have (a) such growth as we need but otherwise (b) a steady-state economy, with the government (which is YOU, by the way) doing the financial allocations. Nobody’s wages need decrease. Nobody needs to quit working. WE KNOW that WE WANT THINGS, and we can SAY what we want; but we don’t need MORE THAN THAT, which is the predicate of Capitalism. You do not buy ten times as much food when your salary goes up by ten times – because your needs are obviously LIMITED by your CAPACITY to consume. Capitalism depends upon keeping you buying more and more and more GARBAGE and they spend YOUR money to make you want to do that shopping! So let’s just cut that crap out NOW.

            Eliminate the PROFIT MOTIVE and what the economy then produces will converge on what people REALLY NEED. You can get entertainment “for free”, i.e. not forking out money at time of consumption, by recording what gets consumed “without payment” and then allocating TAXES to pay the real producers in some proportion to the extent to which they are consumed. But nobody can get WINDFALL PROFITS from this system, and that’s a good thing. Musicians will be much better paid under this system I describe, than they are being paid now under our middleman system. If anything, REAL work will be much more honestly compensated than it currently is.

            I suggest, if you still don’t understand how things would work within the system I endorse, we take the discussion offline here – reach me at ecsd -at- transpacific.net to continue the discussion. I can back up all I say with copious references, i.e. I’m not making these ideas up; they’ve been around for several dozen decades, in fact. See some relevant links at ecsd.com – an econ blog and a bibliography.

          • BY Eric Dynamic says:

            Sorry, I said “several dozen decades” – but that’s a typo, I meant “about twenty decades”, 200 years. See http://thankmefornotkillingyou.com/?p=60 and other posts at that site.

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