True platforms – lessons derived from munching cupcakes! ;-)
Let me ask you a question? When you think cupcakes, what image do you have in front of you? A yummy dessert that makes you feel guilty after cramming one more in your mouth, though it’s your third one and you promised yourself you’ll stop after the first one? ;-) I share the same sin too, but another, rather intriguing picture keeps coming up in my mind when I see them — and I want to talk about that here.
Go to Google Image search and type cupcakes: — According to Google’s hit counting, you should get over 7,000,000 results! Walk around any city (at least in North America) and you’ll see them in every little coffee shop or baking goods store. Even the Food Network runs a show in which cooks are competing to make the best cupcake and win a prize. I even learned recently of a blog dedicated to cupcakes (thx @brainpicker for the link!)
By the way, just for fun, search for cupcakes and for coffee on Google Maps, with a zoom level that shows all of North America, you’ll find around 600,000 businesses for cupcakes and only (!) double that number for coffee. Surprised? I sure was — knowing that Starbucks is on every corner! I think somebody should better start investigating the health effects of cupcakes! ;-)
Why cupcakes are so popular?
I believe it is not the amount of sugar or the lovely icing! Rather, it is a certain quality that not many other desserts or food in general have — the cupcakes represent a platform for delivering a virtually unlimited variety of creations. From a dessert styled for a select audience, to birthday cakes that need no cutting, to artful creations that are not possible with other food, cupcakes seem to offer an almost unlimited variety of options for cupcake lovers!
What exactly do we mean when we say that something has a “platform quality”?
For most people the word platform refers to a supporting foundation on top of which something else is built or is made to run. Everyone is familiar with such platforms as train platforms, oil platforms, automobile platforms, diving platforms, etc.
But platforms are not confined to physical objects. For example, for the politicians trying to seduce the poor voters like me, a platform is a fancy word for describing their plans for (ab)using the tax money on various “programs” that will supposedly be enabled by their political platforms — I guess for some reason they believe the “platform as foundation” metaphor appeals to the taxpayers?!
One area where platforms abound is the technology, especially the computer and telecommunications industries. In computing, for instance, the word platform is utterly ubiquitous as it is used to refer to anything from the computers themselves, to operating systems, databases, programming APIs, even the Internet itself. Again, the foundational picture permeates the common view and all those technologies which enable or can be used to build other technologies and services are seen as platforms — even when they’re not!
I would argue that the “platform as a foundation” view is too broad and too limited at the same time. On one hand something like a database or a smartphone device is seen as a platform, though they may simply be the most prominent building blocks of an actual platform, thus people confusing which is which. Similarly, on the opposite side, something that initially started as a service but later turned into a platform, like YouTube or Twitter, is still seen mainly as a service.
I think there’s a lesson to be learned from our sugary friends, the cupcakes! Using platforms is going to become more and more important in our future progress, especially as the world continues to flatten and people from all over the world need to collaborate to solve common problems, innovate, improve education, etc. Technology-based platform will be increasingly used in implementing them, so understanding what platforms are, what they can do and how they can be used is of great importance.
The first question that I asked myself when thinking of cupcakes was — What makes cupcakes so useful and ubiquitous? Usefulness and widespread use are the two very basic properties that a true (and successful at that!) platform is characterized with, so my next question was — Can it be that cupcakes are not just sugary desserts, but represent something more, something like an open and extensible dessert recipe that can be tweaked and molded to produce an immense variety of desserts?
To discuss this, I’d like to contrast cupcakes with muffins — you think they’re just cupcakes with no icing? – wrong! – it’ll be apparent very soon why!
For the geeks among the readers I’d like to run a parallel comparison with two examples from the world of technology: Google’s Android platform for smartphone and Apple’s iPhone smartphone. I know I am risking to raise some anger or disappoint the iPhone fans by putting iPhone on the “no platform” team, but the reason I chose Android and iPhone is that the smartphone comparison should be understandable to a wider audience, unlike say trying to compare the JBoss Application Server with Microsoft IIS!
A side note: I get a real kick out of recognizing useful platforms and trying to use them. Beside having to control my sugar intake due to this I have also went through a lifestyle transformation when getting my first Android-based phone last week. All I can say is that it is a struggle to balance between watching my favorite TED talks or BBC documentaries on YouTube, sifting through all the news shared by the people I follow on Twitter, and finding time to work on this article. Luckily I can do the last in various places — including the comfort of my bed or while “enjoying” the smell from the arm pits of the fellow sufferers in the morning commute to work with the public transit Dealing with the sleep deprivation will be harder, though
So what can cupcakes teach us about platforms?
They’re open for anyone to slightly change the original recipe for the cake part and produce a whole new cake taste, which, crucially, retains all of the original “platform-like” qualities of the original, so people can try the same old icing with the new flavour, do the same combinations of cupcakes into wedding or birthday cakes, etc. The concept and the recipe behind the cupcakes is so simple that there’s no single recipe monopolized by a few bakers, thus cupcakes are somewhat of an open-source for desserts. Anyone can change the recipes or come up with their own! All that is required is to conform to the basic shape of a small round cake base and support unlimited variations on icing that can go on top.
Unlike cupcakes, muffins are rather monolithic — e.g. to produce a white flour muffin by changing a recipe that suggests using whole grain flour, one needs to mix more complex ingredients, including fruits, nuts, etc. along with the batter and after baking they come out as a final, complete products. There’s no way to reuse some of the work in building the whole grain muffins, by only changing some base recipe to turn it into a white flour muffin.
How about Android and iPhone? One of the biggest advantages of Android being designed as a platform for any smartphone device rather than a particular specific device is that one can conceivably extend the system to do stuff like: – add support for external backup devices even if Android may have no support for detecting when such devices are attached to the USB connector; — add support for a cool new heat sensor that is added in a phone device even if the underlying system has no native support for them; — add support for running J2ME apps and games; etc.
This is especially true due to the fact that Android is developed as an open source project, so anyone can not only contribute to improve it or add new services, but ultimately one could even install their own custom version of Android on their phone — this would be akin to making my own cupcake base flavored with dark chocolate and liquor (yummy!) and asking my wife to put the same icing that she is already putting on the regular cupcakes she’s baking for the kids!
Now, don’t get me wrong, open source is not a pre-requisite for openness when it comes to platforms. In the case of iPhone, Apple provides a low-level programing interface (API) which allows non-Apple developers to write programs that can change various aspects of the system. However, there’s one crucial difference that gives Android the upper hand when combined with the next characteristics discussed below, but for now it is fair to say that both could be characterized as fairly open.
I guess for my iPhone cupcakes I’ll really need to use invasive methods like using a syringe to add my own flavor after my wife got tired of my messing up with recipes and asked me to do the baking myself and stick to the recipe this time. I can maybe even try the same with the muffins, but I’ll have to accept the whole grain flour after all even though I don’t want to give up on white!
The next characteristic that cupcakes have over muffins is that they support composing new desserts out of them that can further be used as custom platforms for producing a final product. For example, one can do stuff like combine multiple cupcake base parts (which can be made with different recipes) to form a base for a birthday cake, even put some basic icing on it to stick the pieces together and make a base cake that can further be decorated with cream, confetti, birthday message, etc. before someone can stick the candles in it and blow them while thinking of their birthday wish.
While cupcakes lend themselves very well as a basis for making other desserts that retain the platform-like quality, muffins fail miserably on this one as any attempt at combining them turns into a mess of randomly thrown pieces together and not a novel product. I am aware of only one combination that makes muffins stick together, but that involves drinking coffee while munching few, though that produces an energy pack in the body that can’t further be used to build other products, except maybe by using that energy in the kitchen in turning more flour, cream and sugar into cupcakes by inverting the famous Einstein formula so that we get m = E/c^2, where m is the amount of cupcakes produced from the energy (E) derived by eating muffins
How about our friends Android and iPhone? To support composability, they need to be able to combine the strength of openness, with an ability to deliver a custom platform that can potentially satisfy the needs of a certain market or group of people — by e.g. packaging specific services along with the platform targeting that audience. Can both contenders do this?
Let’s just say I can imagine someone supplying medical professionals with special Android devices that not only double in the role of a phone and a pager that summons them when they’re needed, but also gives them essential data for the patient they’re getting the alarm for and even allows them to remotely “join” a surgery while they’re on vacation in Maui and provide support to their colleagues or take a control over the robotic surgery arm using a special trackball built into the device.
We won’t see any of those anytime soon with iPhone! This is because the iPhone, like the muffins, is a monolithic (albeit relatively open) system: — It consists of the phone device and the software running on it! With Android, anyone can build a phone device (it doesn’t even have to be a phone per se!) and the Android platform can run on any such device that satisfies a certain minimal criteria or even be updated to run on devices on which running the original platform is not possible!
The next property that makes cupcakes rather unique among desserts is its extensibility. A cupcake is a combination of a cake part or base, on top of which come icing and any additional decorations or extra toppings that can flavor up the experience. This allows one to add new decorations, change the icing, and similar, without ever touching the base and produce a completely new cupcake. It is even possible to lick the icing and reuse the base — something I was contemplating when my daughter was younger as she never ate the base, but still demanded to eat cupcakes rather than some other creamy dessert that I supposed would provide the same experience (obviously wrong thinking!)
To be fair to the muffins, one could conceivably put icing and decorations on them too and produce new kinds of muffins, but in my opinion that would be like sticking a Microsoft keyboard and mouse on an Apple computer!
In the smartphone, or software realm, a platform must allow for certain extension points that can be used to add new services and build specific applications on top of them. However, a product or service doesn’t need to be a true platform to satisfy this. For example, a product can offer a programming interface (API) that allows additional applications to interact with it, but without the support of the openness and composability characteristics the product will nonetheless remain to be “a product with API” and not a platform, just like we saw with iPhone. Needless to say, the combination of the three characteristics together is what makes it possible for different phone producers to put Android on their devices and deliver a custom platform and product to their end users.
While the three above-mentioned characteristics suggest that the cupcakes are succesful because they have a platform-like quality, I think that doesn’t explain the whole story. The spread of the cupcakes to reach the masses, rather than a select group of bakers that can use them to build other desserts, is fueled by the fact that they’re immediately useful to end users — you can happily munch any cupcake and percieve it as a complete dessert experience without thinking if the icing on the next one you’re contemplating to stuff up can be moved on that dark chocolate cake base you really like, but hate the icing they usually put on it.
By definition, a product or a service targeted at end users must be useful to them, otherwise it will crumble in oblivion. However, a somewhat opposite view existed until recently for platforms, as they were thought at having other producers (software developers, bakers, etc.) as their target users, who would then use the platform to build a useful product and deliver it to their end user.
In my opinion, this is the “platform as a foundation” view in its worst. There is no particular reason why should not a platform be immediately useful to an end user — when hungry, I would be perfectly happy to munch few cupcake base parts without waiting for the icing to be ready!
A new view — platform as a service – has been emerging recently where the dividing line between products and platforms has been blurred. This allows for useful products, that started as products, to evolve into platforms without loosing the touch with the end-users. Good examples of such platforms are Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, which started as services offering end users to share short messages, share videos and keep in touch with their friends, respectively, but over time evolved into these big sharing platforms that different application vendors can hook into and customize, extend, etc.
Luckily, they didn’t try to reinvent themselves as platforms, and platforms only, in the traditional “platform as a foundation” sense, but kept the existing users happy with all the functionality they came to love and continued to widen the user base directly without pushing the new users to the level of third party applications developed by other vendors.
Another great example is that of my favorite conference, TED, which went through a truly transformative change in the past years and turned from a conference for the elite, to an open platform for sharing ideas that is constantly evolving based on feedback and demand from the community it managed to build around. Today, thanks to the community of translators, it can reach into virtually every part of the world where English might not be spoken — a feat no other conference can probably pride itself for!
With the launch of the TEDx brand — which is nothing else but an amazingly open and extensible platform that can be packaged and repackaged many times to compose an unlimited number of local conferences which are still recognizably TED-like and maintain the same goal for sharing ideas — the power of acting on those ideas have just jumped several magnitudes as the possibility for engagement at local level are much more abound!
After discovering the power of platforms through taking a different perspective on cupcakes, I am no longer happy with the limited view of platforms as foundational blocks to be used in building products that will be used in solving real users’ problems. Platforms can and should be used in solving some common problems, while enabling an unlimited number of specific applications and services to be built and run on top to expand the problem space with which the platform can ultimately cope.
True platforms can flip between the foundation and the service view depending on the needs of its users — something akin to a quantum state in which both views are possible at the same time and the system collapses into one at the time of use!
They’re more exciting to use and develop and ultimately will take over our lives over the traditional product vs. platform isolated world.
If I must predict, I would argue that — at least in the technology space, though other areas might transform in similar ways — all of the succesful future products will have to implement the service+foundation duality.
We’ve become an interconnected world in which sharing information is ever more increasing and important. The information sharing pressure is bound to send the traditional products down the path of extinction, unless they adapt and become more open, extensible and composable, i.e. ultimately becoming platforms.
Personally, I am very excited to work on such a platform product with my colleagues at Indicee, where we have wholeheartedly accepted the vision in which sharing of data will become the norm not only for business but also for individuals. We hope to make it easier for users being overwhelmed with all that data, while keeping our eyes on the principles of openness, extensibility and composability. I truly hope to see more and more platforms with dual sense emerging — if you know of some, please drop me a message at @g_kima.
Ready to go for the fourth piece of cupcake after reading this? How about you try the swapping of icing between two different flavors and see the impact that has on your taste buds
By the way, if all this talk about cupcakes, muffins, etc. have left you thinking if there are more food examples of platforms, let me give you a hint for two I appreciate a lot — they both come from Italy!
Yes, I am talking about pizza and pasta
Pasta in particular is a classic example of open, extensible and composable — just think of the number of possible options involving spaghetti, penne, macaroni, linguine, tortellini, ravioli, … there’s no end
What? You say pasta lacks the duality between a service and foundation? You must have never been a student with no money to buy more than a pack of spaghetti and a cheap mayo or catchup — trust me, when hungry it’s a real treat compared to some other cheap student meals