CACM+Jan+2010+-+Evolution+of+Platform+Thinking

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32 COMMUNICATIONS OF THE ACM | JANUARY 2010 | VOL. 53 | NO. 1 V viewpoints I N SEVERAL OF my prior publica- tions, including my Communi- cations columns on Microsoft, Apple, and Google, I have ar- gued that companies in the information technology business are often most successful when their prod- ucts become industrywide platforms . The term “platform,” though, is used in many different contexts and can be difficult to understand. I am currently finishing a book on best-practice ideas in strategy and innovation, and include a chapter on how platform thinking has evolved. 1 This column summarizes some of my findings. Most readers have probably heard the term platform used with reference to a foundation or base of common components around which a company might build a series of related prod- ucts. This kind of in-house “product platform” became a popular topic in the 1990s for researchers exploring the costs and benefits of modular product architectures and component reuse. 2 I was among this group, having stud- ied reusable components and design frameworks in Japanese software fac- tories, reusable objects at Microsoft, and reusable underbody platforms at automobile manufacturers. 3 Product versus Industry Platforms In the mid- and late 1990s, various re- searchers and industry observers, in- cluding myself, also began discussing technologies such as Microsoft Win- dows and the personal computer, as well as the browser and the Internet, as “industrywide platforms” for informa- tion technology. Most of us saw the PC as competing with an older industry platform—the IBM System 360 family of mainframes. It took a few more years to devise frameworks to help managers use the concept of an industry platform more strategically. One of my doctoral students, Annabelle Gawer, took on this challenge for her MIT dissertation in the late 1990s, which became the basis for our 2002 book, Platform Lead- ership: How Intel, Microsoft, and Cisco Drive Industry Innovation . In this book and subsequent articles we tried to clarify the characteristics of a product versus an industry platform. 4 Gawer and I argued that an indus- try platform has two essential differ- ences. One is that, while it provides a common foundation or core technol- ogy that a firm can reuse in different product variations, similar to an in- house product platform, an industry platform provides this function as part of a technology “system” whose com- ponents are likely to come from differ- ent companies (or maybe different de- partments of the same firm), which we called “complementors.” Second, the industry platform has relatively little value to users without these comple- mentary products or services. So, for example, the Windows-Intel personal computer or a smartphone are just boxes with relatively little or no value without software development tools and applications or wireless telephony DOI:10.1145/1629175.1629189 Michael Cusumano Technology Strategy and Management The Evolution of Platform Thinking How platform adoption can be an important determinant of product and technological success.
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