Platforms are adopted because they are shiny new painkillers for painful problems that you hear about from people you want to associate with. That’s a bit of a contrived way of saying there are three strong forces at work when it comes to establishing a new platform (or application for that matter). A particular platform may have some or all of the keys, but I maintain that the more of these key characteristics the platform has, the greater its adoption potential. Let’s drill down on each of the three keys and look at some real world examples.
Platforms Need to Be Shiny New Things
Before a platform can be something you choose because someone else is using it, it’s got to attract the attention of early adopters. This can happen due to two of the three forces: the platform can be a shiny new thing, or it can be a powerful antidote for a painful problem. Early adopters are drawn to shiny new things. In fact, they’re driven to seek it out. Same old same old is something they’re tired of. This is how you get your initial “starter” audience going, and depending on their experience with the platform, they will either stick around or move on. Shiny New Thing is a quality that has a shelf life. It will wear off after a time, although sometimes enough time passes that an old thing can be reintroduced as a Shiny New Thing.
What are some examples of the Shiny New Thing platform syndrome. Languages like Erlang and Haskell are Shiny New Things that have traction with early adopters at the moment. Erlang is an old thing, reintroduced as a Shiny New Thing in light of the Multicore Crisis and in light of having been open sourced. Facebook is clearly a Shiny New Thing, although it has some of the other two qualities as well.
Adobe’s Flash and Flex are also great Shiny Thing examples. What could be Shinier or Newer than seeing the web applications one could create with these technologies when they first became available?
Sometimes the Shiny New Thing is a bit of a bait and switch. Users come to a platform because they’re attracted to something else, often a great application that the platform underlies. But I address this more directly as the third key to adoption.
Sometimes what is Shiny and New is controversy. Marc Benioff picked a big fight with Siebel over SaaS. Curiously, he was selling to tiny little customers who were hardly on Siebel’s radar screen in the beginning, with average seat sizes in the low teens per customer. It didn’t matter, the controversy became Shiny and New and the rest is history.
I liken the Shiny New Thing force of adoption to a related concept that a friend called “Green Crystals Marketing”. He came to me one day at Borland and wanted some Green Crystals for Quattro Pro. I asked him what he meant, and he said that soap has green crystals because it gives people permission to believe the soap could be better. It’s a visible difference that attracts attention. Multitenancy has a real commercial purpose in making it possible to deliver SaaS software more cheaply, but it’s also a Green Crystal that gives permission to believe why things can be different with SaaS than hosted software. In this case, the Green Crystal has an active ingredient that really works.
This permission to believe is the function of the Shiny New Thing quality of the platform among those who are not early adopters, so its valuable to have a Shiny New Thing even when it is no longer so new. Multitenancy was valuable is getting people interested in SaaS versus plain old hosting, and it continues to serve a valuable role in adoption by giving later adopters a way of choosing the “true” SaaS players.
An important key to platform adoption is to make sure your solution is differentiated enough to attract the attention of early adopters.
Platforms Need to be Effective Antidotes to Painful Problems
Shiny New Thing is good at getting people to try your platform, but the newness wears off after a while. More importantly, the folks that find the platform through its Shiny Newness need a reason to stay or else the platform just churns without reaching critical mass. What keeps them there is finding real value in the platform.
Ruby on Rails is a good example here. It had Shiny Newness in that it wasn’t yet another curly braced language. It was an effective anecdote to the painful problem of creating web CRUD applications. CRUD is an acronym for the basic database functions of Create Read Update and Delete. Java is another great example. It had the shinyness of not being C++ or C (although it was awfully close), yet it solved some real problems by introducing garbage collection and a virtual machine that made the language highly portable compared to what had come before.
Dramatically reducing the pain around a real problem is the bridge over the famous Chasm that Geoffrey Moore wants us all to cross. The early adopters are content to play with a shiny new thing, but the early majority are pragmatists who insist on a real problem being solved. If the problem is big enough to make a lot of people uncomfortable, and the solution really works, we can cross the chasm.
Interestingly, Moore’s thesis is that the early adopters and early majority often look at things quite differently, and this is the conundrum that leads to the chasm in the first place. I think of this painkilling aspect as convincing some of the early majority to become early adopters because their pain is so great that they will do anything to get it fixed, even down to trying an early-stage platform.
One key to predicting a platform’s long term prospects is to identify a real problem that is pervasive with an interesting enough audience, and to make sure the platform really does dramatically reduce the pain surrounding the problem. Make sure it isn’t placebo effect; we want pain killers not vitamin pills!
Platforms Prosper In a Virtuous Loop When People Want to Cash In On the Attention Surrounding One
Now we have two powerful forces working for us. The early adopters are drawn to the shiny new thing. Some of them will be tirekickers that move on. But some have real pain that the platform can help eliminate. If enough of this goes on, a community will develop that others will want to join. This is the final stage, and one that a new platform has to hope for if the other two keys have been strong enough to reach that critical mass or tipping point where there are enough believers already on the platform and committed to it that word gets out this is the place to be. I’ve written about the web and tipping points before, and you can see its a powerful tool to help reduce the friction and ensure a lower critical mass will cause a tipping point.
The examples here are obvious. Facebook started as a Shiny New Thing and it was so shiny that the hip crowd is there so others want to be as well. We’re still waiting to see whether it solves some terrible pain or not, but the original forces were powerful enough that critical mass was reached. People now want to build applications on the platform just so they can tap into that energy.
Salesforce’s Force platform is another obvious example. There are a tremendous number of applications on the platform, but they’re really all there because they want to tap into the tremendous success of Salesforce.
Sometimes the attraction is not so sexy. Established platforms develop the reputation of being lower risk. It isn’t so much that they’re the hip new place to be: their shininess vanished a long time ago. Rather, so much has been done on them, and they are so familiar, that people figure you can’t lose by adopting one. In my college days, COBOL and FORTRAN were those platforms. Lately, I see things like Java and Oracle as fitting into that role. Inertia drives their continued growth and success, but their salad days of phenomenal expansion are done.
Ning, I will argue, is not yet at critical mass, although perhaps they’re getting close. They started as a Shiny New Thing: how would you like to have your very own social network? They worked on the pain cure until anybody could create their own social network, at which point sales took off and they recently announced there were 100,000 Ning networks. My sense is that they haven’t quite closed the viral loop with enough critical mass because I don’t hear about enough “hit” Ning networks yet.
But What About Competition?
A venture capitalist once said, “Competition begins at $100M.” In this game, if you haven’t established the critical mass that is the final stage of platform adoption before you’re at $100M, something is wrong. The problem you want to eliminate pain for should be broad enough to allow several $100M critical masses to be reached.
There you have it. Three keys to use in gaging the likelihood a platform will make it.