mobileTech Tuesday, by Steve Guengerich
As we’ve discussed in this column before, Austin has a very robust mobile scene. But, then so do the Bay Area, New York City, the Boston 128 corridor, and for that matter Houston and Dallas. And, of course, if you start counting non-US domestic hotbeds, you’ve got thriving mobile scenes in Western and Eastern EU countries, China, Japan, India, Korea, Brazil, etc.
As Kleiner partner Mary Meeker so nicely summed up recently, mobile is the “it” Internet trend of the moment. So, what distinguishes the Austin mobile scene?
I’ve recently heard the argument from a couple of different sources that Austin may be a center of gravity for mobile platform offerings. Companies like Unwired Nation (commerce), Famigo (games), Chaotic Moon (content), Phunware (branded experiences), Seedlabs (events), and my own, Appconomy (communications), are just a few examples with local ties(there are others) that have produced app platforms that enable other companies to build or customize “on top” of their apps.
This bursting growth market in platforms seems to be one of the hot topics of the moment. The broader tech media can’t seem to get enough of them, especially enterprise platforms, for the mobile app market, with articles in the New York Times, Mashable, TechCrunch and others.
But, all of this platform talk reminds me of an interview with Bill Gates back in the Win3.1 days (yes, that’s young Bill in the photo), when IBM’s OS/2 was still ostensibly in a position to give Microsoft a run for its money for the PC desktop. In the interview, the journalist with PC Week was asking Gates about Windows’ ability to serve as an application platform and Bill went all…well, “Bill Gates” on her for lack of a better metaphor.
Back in the pre-Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation days, apparently Bill used to be quite the interview challenge and, in this case, got very cantankerous about the use of this word platform. He viewed it as the ultimate faux tech jargon – a completely user-defined word…capable of meaning everything and nothing, simultaneously.
I recall him turning the tables on the interviewer and asking “what is a platform anyhow? What does it mean? I don’t understand what you are asking? I mean, I could argue that a PC bus is a platform, every bit as much as an operating system is a platform!” And so on, and so on.
My point being that Gates’ challenge stuck with me: what is it that we really mean when we call something a platform? A quick review of Wikipedia cites that a “computing platform” is “some sort of hardware architecture and software framework (including application frameworks) that allows software to run.”
I’d argue a much simpler, admittedly less technical, definition. You have a computing platform if it allows you and others to accomplish the following less expensively than if they did it on their own:
- Continuously gain new customers
- Introduce new services
- Integrate with other services (and allow them to integrate with you) in reliable, predictable ways – usually via what we know in computer science lingo as an API, or application program interface
Note in the first item the word “continuously.” It’s an important word because it implies that the platform, inclusive of all its services (including yours), is attracting new customers to join it. So, even if you were highly successful gaining new customers initially, because the platform is adding other, new customers, then there is a reason to maintain and even increase your investment in it.
By this definition, then, Apple has the biggest, ‘baddest’ mobile platform on the planet, at this moment in early 2011. And, closer to home, with just north of 600,000 registered users, according to a December 2010 Reuters story, Gowalla is arguably the largest mobile “platform” provider based in Austin.
How about it Austin? Are we distinguished by our mobile platforms? Or do platforms even matter? I for one look forward to reading the “tea leaves” of South-by-Southwest and the months ahead to see if there is perhaps some other more meaningful category(ies) that emerge.