Yes, 2013 was the year of the platform. And there’s more to come in 2014

What I said last year

The headline of my closing post last year, written on 30 December 2012, was “…and then you win….Gandhi, platforms and 2013″. In the two posts on either side of that one, I’d majored on platforms as well: On habanero dosas, platforms and makers and On platforms and sharing. I’d fairly and squarely nailed my colours to the platform mast a year ago, when it came to choosing themes for the year ahead. Here’s a quote from that year-ago post:

Platforms enable ecosystems. They are “multi-sided” like exchanges and marketplaces, focused on simplifying interactions between participants. As David Weinberger said recently, the smartest person in the room is now the room. In 2013, there’s going to be a room born every minute. A very smart room. Those rooms are going to demand support for their interactions and their creativity, as they change the way they live. That support is going to come from platforms. Platforms. Open, adaptive, enabling. Allowing ecosystems to be formed and to flourish.

Other predictions I’d made: subscription, search, conversation and fulfilment

Let’s stay with the topic of predictions for now. A decade earlier, I’d said:

I believe that it is only a matter of time before enterprise software consists of only four types of application: publishing/syndication, search, fulfilment and conversation.

Those sentiments were paraphrased and re-published when I set up the public-facing version of this blog eight years ago, in the section About This Blog. And when I started writing external-facing posts regularly, this is what I had to say:

I’ve been fascinated by information all my life, and, serendipitously, been allowed to work in the information sector for most of it. The Moore-Metcalfe-Gilder Laws continue to have their effect, and with telephony becoming software, I feel we’re at a wonderful inflection point in the sector. And what I want to do via this blog is to catalyse conversations about some of the things that really matter to me in this context. How search, publishing, fulfilment and conversation become the core applications of the future. How we can prevent the unintended consequences of walled-garden approaches to content. How we can avoid DRM holding up innovation. Why identity and presence and authentication and permissioning are important. Why emergence theories and “democratized innovation” matter. How we can take advantage of the opportunities that mobile devices offer us.

Putting all this in context

Let’s take a wander down memory lane.

When I started work 35 years ago, the term “knowledge worker” was already a couple of decades old. And I was meant to be one of those knowledge workers. Here’s what I’ve been using as a definition of “knowledge worker”:

A knowledge worker is a person who interacts with people and/or information in order to create, curate and/or consume knowledge

People buy from people. People sell to people. People teach people. People learn from people. People work with people.

People interact with people.

Knowledge workers are no different. But the environment in which the knowledge worker works has changed, and changed dramatically. In my first job, most things were still very “analog”. I had a physical desk, with an in and out tray. People used to send each other letters called inter-office memoranda or memos. These memos were usually typed, on typewriters. The person sending the letter wasn’t usually the typist, that was the work of someone else, sometimes called a stenographer (if the person “took dictation”) or a typist; an aggregation of such people was called a “secretarial pool”. Memos went from person to person inside strange orange envelopes, designed for re-use, with the ability to scratch the previous recipient’s name and add a new one. If you were a regular recipient of internal mail, you would find yourself scratching your own name off.  Sometimes the envelopes were green or even white, these were “special”. The way memos went from person to person was special as well. You had your own pigeonhole, your inbox. If you were senior then your name would have a yellow highlight through it. If you were really senior then your name would be in CAPITAL LETTERS and highlights as well. And if you were really really senior you had your own office.

There was a telephone on your desk, but all you could do was make internal calls. For which you had a telephone directory of internal extensions. If you were senior you could call out. If you were really senior you could call out internationally.

If you were not at your desk people would take messages for you. Write them on slips of paper, leave them on your desk. The only way you knew someone had called was if you went back to your physical desk and read the physical piece of paper. [One year, soon after I came to the UK, there was a message left for me to “Call Liz, urgently”. My boss at the time was a woman called Liz. Assuming it was her, I called the number and asked for Liz. And found myself apologising profusely before I quietly put the phone down. Buckingham Palace did not take kindly to oiks like me calling and asking for Liz. I’d been had. Royally.]

Computers existed, but not PCs. If you were lucky, you had a “dumb” terminal on your desk, connected to a mainframe somewhere else. Personal productivity tools for document creation and management did not exist. Neither did spreadsheets, nor simple database programs. Presentations were usually done using overhead projector cells, which were “transparent” copies of something that had been created on a typewriter. E-mail existed, but principally text-only, we didn’t even have SMTP as an RFC, much less a standard, then. And it didn’t matter anyway, because your dumb terminal was only connected to the mainframe some floors away. You could dial-up the modem remotely, using a 4800 baud line, and watching paint dry while you sent “screens” forward and back. The “screens” were how you referred to a screensworth of data on a “green screen”, usually with a maximum of 80 characters width and 24-25 lines depth. Most of that space was given up to field names and delimiters, so that a screensworth was actually very little data being passed. It’s not just screen real estate that was scarce, so was bandwidth, so was memory, so was processor power, so was everything. Everything was vetted and cleansed before it went anywhere, because scarcity ruled.

These non-PC computers had text management programs that were based around SGML. WYSIWIG probably hadn’t even been invented as a term. You “wrote” documents in a markup language (initially using punch cards, later using electronic files); the printed outputs came back later … if they printed. Errors in the source document led to pages and pages of listing paper waste, you didn’t even have the facility to test-run the source document.

When you wanted to “know” something, you asked for a report. Which meant making a small set of choices in order to receive a ream of listing paper, one day later, most of which you didn’t need. There was no ability to schedule meetings except in analog form. You were invited to a meeting via a typewritten memo. You called an extension to say you were coming. And you turned up. Or not. There were stationery cupboards with things called pens and pads and erasers. Staplers. Typewriter ribbons. SnoPake correction fluid. Sellotape. Scissors. And files. Lots of them. And bloody great filing cabinets to put them in. The bigger your cubicle, the more filing space you had. There was no such thing as a conference call. And nothing portable or personal. It was less than ten years since Marty Cooper had called Joel Engel, it would be another ten years before the mobile phone went mainstream.

No internet. No PC. No mobile phone. No ability to schedule events. Everything analog, hardcopy, disconnected. Search was a manual thing in a confined space. No ability to collaborate or share.If something could be repeated, it would be repeated. No learning. Nothing. Nothing but a pile of interactions that were lost as they happened. With frictions and latencies abounding.

Platforms that enable interactions

Fast forward to today, and it’s a whole new world. What I saw as “conversation” a decade ago is now the feed, the stream: stream processing has become (forgive the pun) mainstream. The firehose of the stream needs filters in order to become useful, in order to allow people to create and curate knowledge and value. Which means you need the ability to subscribe to people and things you’re interested in, to separate them from the rest of the noise. “Subscription” is fine for situations when the need is regular; “search” (and good, global search) is what you need for the ad-hoc as opposed to the routine and regular. Search and subscription are used to enhance conversation in order that the knowledge worker has the information needed to act. Which is where fulfilment comes in.

What I saw as search, subscription, conversation and fulfilment is now available on steroids, as we move into the stream/filter/drain model that is the essence of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn. And Salesforce1. Which is why I am so excited by what’s been happening in 2013, and what’s to follow in 2014.

Today’s leading platforms are all about enabling interactions. “Social” is about making those interactions easier, in terms of discovery of value within the network; it’s about signalling the interactions of value, using the RTs, the Likes, the +1s, the votes, the ratings, the reviews. It’s about doing all this not just with the what, but also with the whom and the where and the when. Which is where the metadata associated with the interactions comes in. And where “mobile” enters the fray.

These interactions are becoming more and more valuable as we move from simple networks to the “internet of customers“, as we move from connected computers through documents and sites through people through devices through concepts to a connected everything. And behind every single thing in this everything is a customer.

The stream is the place where interactions happen. The filter is what makes the interactions valuable. And the metadata allows patterns associated with person, place, time, topic, to be surfaced and understood, initially as correlations, and later, after deep investigation, from a causal perspective. There’s a whole new world of analytics that has opened up as a result.

Why is all this happening now?

The industry I joined all those decades ago was, like the Gaul of Asterix and Obelix, divided into three parts: general systems; telecoms; embedded systems. People still argue about why those divisions happened, but they did. It took the best part of two decades for the distinction between IT and telecoms to disappear; it’s taken the best part of another two decades for the distinction between general and embedded systems to feel the same pressure. Now you can make a phone call using javascript; now you can control an actuator or a sensor using javascript. So the distinctions are fading.

This is happening at a time when everyone and everything is getting connected, and when it’s possible to identify, auto-geo-locate, auto-date-and-time-stamp, everything. It’s happening at a time when finding out what your friends think is cheap (though it may still be relatively hard to find out just who your friends are…. one friction at a time). It’s happening at a time when the cost of CPU cycles, storage and bandwidth continue to decline apace.

And it’s happening at a time when we are truly moving from the hierarchical to the networked world, from stocks to flows, from the linear process to the nonlinear interaction as the way value is created.

We’ve spoken about this for decades, it is now part of the way we work.

What next?

In 2013 we saw the maturing of the stream, the filter and the drain. We saw people stop worrying just about interfaces and concentrate on interactions as well, and on the “UX” of those interactions.

There are still many frictions and latencies to remove from our interactions. More ways to add stuff to our streams. More ways to remove stuff from our streams. Other ways to add, improve and refine our ability to filter. As individual producers, consumers and curators of knowledge.

There are still many silos to break and bring into the stream, demolishing the swivel-chair integration of the past. We have to be able to “act” within the stream and not have to leave it to take action.

In my next post I will spend time on expanding on this. Subject, of course, to your comments and what I learn from them. If I see a lot of comments come quickly then I’ll definitely write the post before the year-end. It’s up to you to let me know whether I’m doing something useful or wasting your time and possibly mine.

A coda

While writing this post, I noticed that someone else had linked to one of the year-old posts. Went investigating, and found this site, Platform Thinking. Excellent stuff. And the video at the end of the post is well worth watching. I will make references to what they say there in my next post.

9 thoughts on “Yes, 2013 was the year of the platform. And there’s more to come in 2014”

  1. Hey Confused of Calcutta,

    I really liked this blog post – especially your detailed account of what work used to look like. Incredible and almost unimaginable!

    The only point on which I would disagree with you is when you wrote that no collaboration, sharing or learning occurred back in the day because of the abscence of connecting systems/technologies and the subsequent fragmented interactions.

    I would suggest that learning, collaboration and sharing did happen -albeit very manually- through actual conversations in ‘meat space.’ But, as you are well aware, this collaboration would have been on a much smaller scale compared to the possibilities offered to the knowledge worker today. In addition, the reach and value of this collaboration would have been limited, as only those who participated in the actual collaboration would reap the learnings (and those with whom these collaborators chose to manually share the learnings- i.e. people that the ‘collaborators’ actually spoke to afterwards).

    But boy, oh, boy you are right- the opportunities to learn, connect and share has increased exponentially with the invention of collaborative platforms and with the adoption of a culture of increased openness.

    In sum, I think you and I would agree that people haven’t changed- but the way we can connect to each other and the amount of people to whom we connect is markedely different.

    Thanks again for the post and I look forward to more interactions with you in 2014! Happy new year!

  2. Thanks Heather. I agree, I should have been less scathing on the lack of collaboration in the past. It happened, but with a lot of friction and latency, and therefore weakly, poorly, ineffectively, particularly in comparison with today. Call it poetic licence if you will; your point is valid. And thank you for the feedback.

  3. Thanks Will. Today’s post will be more rambling and perhaps more of a challenge to read. But I am enjoying writing it!

Let me know what you think

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.