Facebook and platform complementors: history repeats?

The longer I am in this business, the more amazed I am at the new things being invented daily. In an attempt to stay on top of things, I try to train my critical eye for common themes and patterns that transcend the breathless Techmeme zeitgeist because they usually provide the deepest and most long-lasting insights. And so it is with all the discussions over the past several months about platforms. Some of the pathways we’re currently seeing around developer platforms like Facebook have been well-worn in the past by pre-web companies like Microsoft and Intel. As always, though, things are just different enough now to make me think that there are entirely new lessons to be learned. As the old Santayana quote goes, “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” but in Silicon Valley, those who rely on their command of history too much often find themselves getting crushed by a 23-year-old who skipped history class in favor of a CS degree.

My mind starting churning about the evolution of technology platforms when I came across “Facebook Walks Fine Line with App Developers” in Charlie Wood‘s del.icio.us bookmarks. It begins:

Imagine spending a couple months building a Facebook application only to wake up one day and see it launched as part of Facebook’s core feature set. That’s what happened to Amin Ariana who built the Friendmates application. Amin launched a friend suggestion and soon enough it was launched on Facebook. While I think this service is an obvious feature that would eventually launch, Amin did not sound to happy in his email to News.com.

The News.com story quotes the developer, Amin Ariana:

“I believe the outcome of this and similar moves without appropriate repercussions in giving credit to developers who are coming up with innovative ideas will ultimately result in the discouragement of such developers and a diminish(ed) effect on innovative thinking,” Ariana continued. “I know change cannot be stopped, but along the way giving credit to the little people underneath will be a key to success against competition.”

This scenario most certainly feels like a new sort of affront to committed developers like Ariana, but it’s nothing new. For a thoughtful take on the same dynamic, replace “Facebook” with “Apple” and check out Nat Torkington’s post at O’Reilly Radar from nearly two years ago: “Where does the Apple stop and the worm begin?“. The dance between platform providers and independent third-party developers is tricky to say the least. It has been for many years and will be for many more.

This dynamic was discussed at length in 2002 (before Facebook!) in Platform Leadership by Michael A. Cusumano and Annabelle Gawer, except it was framed as “platform leader” vs. “complementor” (i.e. third-party developer). If you don’t have time for the entire book (and who has time for books when you could be writing a Facebook app *right now*?!), you can get the gist of it by reading “The Elements of Platform Leadership,” a distillation of key points in the book from the Spring 2002 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review (available for purchase for $6.50).

While the authors focused mainly on Intel, Microsoft, and Cisco, the discussion applies to Facebook and other platforms that didn’t exist way back in 2002. On page 54 (the 4th page of the article), a sidebar entitled “Advice for complementors” addresses the plight of the third-party developer directly, comparing the interaction to dancing with an elephant:

Is it possible to dance with the elephant — that is, to avoid getting crushed when a powerful platform leader decides to compete? If complementors commit resources to innovations, they should focus on products that the platform producer is unlikely to offer. They need to work at continuous communication because changes occur rapidly. Complementors need to keep alert to a platform leader’s product plans and try to get early information on a move onto their turf. They need to react quickly to demands; slow response may give a platform leader an excuse to compete with the complementor later.

Although platform leaders need complementors as a group, usually the balance of power between a platform leader and one lone complementor is tilted toward the platform leader. The trick to being a successful complementor is always to have peanuts to offer the elephant — to create products that continuously enhance the value of the core product even as the core changes.

Of course, the advice that the authors give in the article might fall just a little into the self-evident camp (“focus on products that the platform producer is unlikely to offer” “React quickly to demands”) and the devil is in the details. Generally, though, developers like Ariana shouldn’t see their role vis-a-vis Facebook as essentially different to developers on any other platform historically. That being said, while I would still argue that the rules of the platform game are roughly the same, the overall velocity and number of participants in the new platforms makes the game today inherently different. Engaging with platforms (i.e. writing code) has become drastically simpler and I can become a “complementor” to a platform in a focused evening. The pace of development on a platform can often be measured in hours and days (certainly not the months and years of yore), making it difficult at times for everyone just to keep up with the baseline activity around a platform — even the seemingly all-powerful platform provider itself.

Velocity changes everything. As the developers dance faster in this new environment, so too does the platform elephant. The faster the elephant dances, the more likely “the little people underneath” (as Ariana calls platform developers in the News.com story) could get unwittingly trampled in the process.

Update: Charlie Wood offers his perspective and summarizes: “Clearly, the trick to keeping any platform ecosystem healthy is to selectively incorporate such third-party developments into the platform itself instead of running roughshod over them. Mastering this process is critically important for any burgeoning platform provider.” I agree!

(Credit: Flickr photo by Kevin Hamm, Creative Commons license)

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3 thoughts on “Facebook and platform complementors: history repeats?

  1. The detail that so many Facebook Platform developers have missed is really quite simple and fits neatly into the parallel you’ve drawn with the Windows API or Intel’s instruction set. Just as at those levels it’s silly for a 3rd party to develop a network settings manager or a file browser, it’s absolutely absurd to develop features for Facebook that do nothing more than fluff up the social graph.

    The Facebook Platform is about using those relationships to more easily do something (anything) else, not simply piling on more relationships.

  2. Finally got around to reading this and am so glad that I did.

    I’m surprised that I’m not seeing more discussion about these dynamics (platform leader vs complementor) given the fact that there are so many “platforms” out there. Whether you’re Facebook or Twitter, offering up the ability to build on top of your service means that you should be thinking about how you’re going to manage your evolution and, as such, the evolution of your complementors.

    To date, it doesn’t seem to me like any of the service providers have actively talked about their strategy here. The accelerated pace of change creates a new opportunity to service your complementors better than others if you’re the platform leader. I think we have yet to see anyone do that well, though.

  3. I am delighted to discover this blog, and glad you appreciated my earlier work on platform leadership. For other readers interested in these ideas, you may want to read a more recent article by Gawer and Cusumano (2008) titled Strategies to Become a Platform Leader, published in the MIT Sloan Management Review. Full references can be found on http://www.platformleadership.com
    I am happy to engage in more discussion, just email me from that web page which has my contact, as well as summaries of recent publications. Update: a forthcoming book that I have edited titled Platforms, Markets and Innovation — which gathers the novel contributions of 24 of the best international researchers in this area.

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