Perspectives August 3, 2011

Screens, Storage and Networks

A new way to think about platforms


I’ve been thinking a bunch about platforms lately, and how they’re evolving very very quickly. Generally, there are two categories of thing that people talk about as platforms. Traditionally, they’ve been computer operating systems: Windows, OS X & Linux, now iOS & Android. Lately people are talking about cloud platforms: services like EC2, but also web services with APIs that other apps are built to integrate with.

But more and more, that’s not the way I’m thinking about my own systems; as devices proliferate at my own home, and as I tend to use tiny connected computers in more numerous and varied contexts.

I’ve been interested in what I call “4 screen & a cloud” products for a while: products that help us unify and take advantage of our laptop + phone + tablet + tv — but it all became a little clearer to me a few weeks when a wave of devices entered the house all at the same time. In the space of a few weeks, I upgraded to an iPad2, got a Samsung Tab to experiment with Android Tablets, got an Android phone in addition to my iPhone, and got a WebOS phone from the D9 conference. So we had all those devices in the house, plus our iMac, Kathy’s set of devices, and my mom’s as well, since she was visiting. Oh, and 3 Kindles between the three of us. Screens were everywhere.

Now, I’m the first to recognize that we’re somewhat atypical in our technology consumption in normal times; add to that the devices that I’ve picked up lately because of work and my house is a jumble of operating systems, devices and power adapters. Exciting!

When you get that many screens and devices, what happens is interesting: when you want to do something, communicate with someone, remember something, schedule an appointment, read a book, or whatever, you just pick up whatever screen is nearest to you and work from that.

Well, you do that if you can. Because in our current platform chaos, not all devices are fungible, not all activities are available from all platforms.

So that got me thinking some about what I need, and where, and in what contexts and on what devices, and now I think about platforms this way: I have a set of screens, a set of stuff, and a set of people that I want to do things with — and I want those sets available to me wherever & whenever I am.

By screens, I mean something more than just pixels: I really mean input & output systems, of which screens are the most visible parts; really it should probably be screens, sensors & speakers. In other words, it’s the displays of each system, the audio systems, and the ways that we indicate intent, be it typing, swiping, speaking, remote-button-puching, smilingwavingrunning, or just being.

By storage, I mean something more than just bits: while Dropbox and iCloud and Clouddrive are important, I want to do more than just store and share my files with others. It’s about more than having a place to put my music. It’s about having the context of my life: my apps, my reading material, my history of shopping & interest intent. It’s really the things I’m creating, consuming, sharing, saving, working on and just thinking about. One of the things that’s probably non-obvious about this formulation is that for this to work, the storage is going to be pretty keyed to my identity. Without knowing something about who I am, it won’t work.

And by network, I mean something more than just my Facebook graph: what’s becoming clear is that we’ve all got many and diverse groupings in our lives, ranging from the very intimate groups of a nuclear family to the wide-ranging groupings of Twitter followers. The short version, though, is that it’s becoming increasingly clear that, just like in the offline world, people online want to do things with each other. Shocking, I know.

That’s the definition of platform that’s relevant to me: a combination of screens, storage and networks that help me do my work and live my life. The companies that see that true platforms transcend any one particular technology stack will be the ones that prosper — you can already see some interesting ones emerge.

As a side note, I think screens, storage & networks is one way to look at the landscape of the giants competing: it’s where Apple, Google, Facebook & Amazon are slugging it out (and to some extent it’s the evolution now of my old stomping ground, Mozilla). I would argue that each of the giants has a super strong position in 1 or 2 of the three areas, but none has a lock on all three, and most of the interesting initiatives of each are about strengthening the places where they’re historically weak.

Apple is obviously terrific at screens, okay at storage, and not very good at networks.

Google’s now strong at screens (although probably not as strong as Apple) and could be great at storage, and finally has a credible start on networks.

Facebook is incredibly strong at networks, has some weakness in screens, and is pretty good with storage (at least for things like photos).

And Amazon is very strong on storage, weak at networks, and weak (at the moment) on screens.

I’d argue that their relative strengths and weaknesses are important for startups to understand as well, as that gives you a bit of a map of one set of opportunities.

Anyway, that’s how I’m thinking about things lately. What do you think?

“The companies that see that true platforms transcend any one particular technology stack will be the ones that prosper.”