Google is Wrong? Platforms vs. Products – an Explanation

Est. Reading Time: 5 minutes

Last week, the world of social media was temporarily rocked by an accidental leak from a Google employee (the world of social media moved on quickly because that is what social media does).  Steve Yegge wanted to vent some opinions on Google+ in an internal memo, but accidentally made the post public.  To their credit, Google has not tried to suppress the post after the fact – you can read it here.  It is a bit lengthy, but I highly recommend taking the time to read it to get some pretty candid opinions from a Google developer towards one Google’s latest foray into social media.

In this post, Yegge expounds on some of the mistakes made with Google+ and makes some comparisons with an area where he finds & Facebook to be superior.  What really stood out to me was Yegge’s take on products and platforms:

“That one last thing that Google doesn’t do well is Platforms. We don’t understand platforms. We don’t “get” platforms. Some of you do, but you are the minority. This has become painfully clear to me over the past six years. I was kind of hoping that competitive pressure from Microsoft and Amazon and more recently Facebook would make us wake up collectively and start doing universal services. Not in some sort of ad-hoc, half-assed way, but in more or less the same way Amazon did it: all at once, for real, no cheating, and treating it as our top priority from now on.”

“A product is useless without a platform, or more precisely and accurately, a platform-less product will always be replaced by an equivalent platform-ized product.”

It occurred to me that since this was meant to be an internal post from a developer for other developers, those without a background in development may not understand the differences between platforms and products within the context of this post.  While the words can mean different things to different people across various industries (or even within this one), what purpose do they serve in this post to explain the [perceived] flaws in Google+ in relation to its competitors?

In this context, Yegge is criticizing Google+ for working on a closed system.  This makes it a “product.”  It is a versatile system with a variety of the features that people like in other social media systems – i.e. pictures, music, games, etc.  But, at the end of the day, the user is beholden to the features that Google has created for them.  Google+ is a pre-packaged product where the user’s ability to customize the experience is limited within the framework that Google allows.  Think of it as buying a car.  After purchase, you can add features like a CD player, power locks, keyless entry, et al.  You can even change car’s color.  But, you can’t drastically alter what the car is.  If you purchased an SUV, you cannot remake it as a sports coupe.

Yegge argues that Google+ (and maybe even Google itself to a certain degree) should be looking at itself more as a platform.  In this context, think of a platform more as a building foundation.  The foundation is a necessity and provides some direction for what it to be built upwards.  However, architects and foremen still have plenty of leeway on how to proceed.  For example, look at the openness of Facebook.  This was a system that originally served simply as a networking site.  However, over the past decade, it has evolved into a site where people listen to music (Spotify), play games (Farmville, Mafia Wars), determine their genealogy, take quizzes, etc.  These activities are done primarily through applications developed by third party developers.   These are people with no affiliation to Facebook, but can still use Facebook as a platform to develop apps designed to work specifically within it.  This means that every user experience is different depending on what apps they have installed on their page.  This also means that Mark Zuckerburg and Co. have given themselves significant flexibility for the future.  They do not have to dream of the next big thing, they will still benefit from it if occurs on their platform.

But, by being a product over a platform, Google+ has determined that it already knows what its users wants and will be able to provide that experience for them.  With over 40 million users at the time of this post, they are obviously doing something right.  But for sustainability purposes, without being in a platform setup, Google will have to constantly be on the edge of taste in order to prevent from going the way of MySpace…

- EJW, follow me on twitter: @ejwestksu