Your Product…Is a Feature?

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For someone that doesn’t even like the word, Caroline got to one of the most pertinent platform questions quickly when we spoke for this piece. Though the context in this case was social networks, the question is one that every would-be platform has to face at some point: what’s the difference between an application and a feature?

The success of a platform, after all, is with but few exceptions gained by virtue of the ecosystem that surrounds it. The type of platform is relatively unimportant. Whether it’s Microsoft Windows – which gets my vote for the most successful software platform in history – or social networking applications of a more recent vintage, the canonical example being Facebook, ecosystems are the metric by which all are judged. Or should be.

Few would dispute the fact that winning platforms command developer attention and application traction, but even fewer would challenge the assertion that – for better or for worse – platforms tend to accrue functionality like a boat picks up barnacles. The conflict therein may be obvious to some of you, but to spell it out: a certain percentage of the applications developed for a given platform are destined to become nothing more than a feature of that platform. If the application developers are lucky, their technology is acquired by the platform purveyor in what effectively becomes development outsourcing. If they’re not…well, they can go from hero to zero, overnight.

For an example of what I’m talking about, consider the overlap between Twitter and Facebook’s “status” feature. Yes, Twitter is more feature rich – but Pownce betters Twitter in the feature department, and no one I know uses it actively. Why, many have asked, will Facebook not allow the Twitter Facebook application to populate the Facebook status feature? Not knowing the Facebook folks, I can’t say, but I’d be very surprised if they hadn’t discussed whether or not – from the Facebook perspective – Twitter was an application, or merely a feature of their social networking platform.

If you’re of the enterprisey mindset, perhaps the example of IBM and web content management will resonate more clearly. Years ago, IBM was content to leave the business of web content management to vendor partners like Documentum, Interwoven, and Vignette, focusing its own portfolio on more esoteric and complex content management challenges. Over time, however, customers grew less and less excited about the idea of buying a separate product from a separate vendor to manage each type of content, and as a result IBM began turning web content management – once a stand alone product category of its own – into a feature of its various content management and portal products.

IBM is no stranger to this line, of course. Its current and maybe future software strategy, in fact, is built largely on its promise to application ISV partners that it will not compete with them. Unlike Microsoft (Great Plains, Navision, etc) or Oracle (Peoplesoft, Siebel, etc), IBM tells them, we’re not going to encroach on your territory. By keeping its focus solely on the infrastructure portion of the equation, IBM aims to encourage application development by very explicitly drawing the line between feature and product.

Back in consumer land, Apple is perhaps the most (in)famous for crossing the fine line. See Karelia’s Watson for one example.

While popular, the David v Goliath tone to many of the discussions of this trend are misplaced, in my opinion. Occasionally, of course, platform vendors may be guilty of a lack of sensitivity, a lack of appreciation for the importance of their developer community, or both. But honestly, what are they to do? Preemptively freeze the platform? Cast a blind eye towards innovations that occur elsewhere? Acquire everything in sight to preserve their development “rights”?

My vote is none of the above. Developers need to use common sense about where and what they build, and keep their eyes open. Oh, and keep innovating; if you’re small, the odds are that you can do that quicker than your erstwhile platform partner.

Disclosure: IBM and Microsoft are RedMonk clients, while Apple, Facebook, Oracle, and Twitter are not.

One comment

  1. I suggest that a discussion of Mashups is relevant and potentially reduces the criticality of the above argument. Boeing created an emergency response situational application ( http://www.ibm.com/developerworks/blogs/page/etech?entry=boeing_mashup_using_ibm_mashup ) that typifies the opportunity and ignores the above debate. I agree with your point the user doesn’t care as long as they have the features they need when they need them.

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