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Picking a Platform: 5 Issues to Consider

A month ago, ReadWriteWeb writer Marshall Kirkpatrick utilized his huge network of Twitter followers to facilitate a discussion about APIs and platforms. He shared the highlights of the conversation in a post on this blog. The discussion was one that really captured our imaginations, so today we’re exploring the issue further and presenting 5 dynamics that you should consider when picking a platform.

Over the past month, we’ve continued to think a lot about the process of picking a platform on top of which to build an application. We’ve had a few interesting interviews on ReadWriteTalk that have touched on these issues. Specifically, we interviewed David Glazer, an Engineering Director at Google and one of the champions inside Google of the OpenSocial project. We also interviewed Lance Tokuda, the CEO and Co-Founder of RockYou, a social software company that builds apps on top of OpenSocial and the Facebook platform.

Though the interviews with Lance and David focused on the issues related to platforms for social applications, it struck us that the same dynamics now exist across a number of platforms. For example, in the mobile space there are a number of platforms on which you can currently release a mobile app. We actually covered some of this in our interview with Adam Taggart from Yahoo!’s Mobile Platform. Obviously, with Apple opening up the iPhone platform, the alternatives are growing. Another industry with similar dynamics is the video game market. In fact, Lance actually referenced Electronic Arts as a model for the type of company he is building.

In this post, we’ll highlight five common dynamics that software companies need to take into consideration when deciding which platforms to focus on.

Audience Issues

A platform will only be of use to you if the type of user who will find your application valuable is actually using it. Therefore, the first three issues to be considered when picking a platform center around the dynamics of reaching those users and making sure they are the right users for you. Specifically, these are:

  • Issue 1: Reach of the Platform
  • Issue 2: Growth of Audience
  • Issue 3: Value of that Audience

Issue 1: Reach of Platform

Reach is simply another term for the size of an audience. When looking at reach, it’s important to consider how many users specifically have the problem you’re trying to solve. If a platform doesn’t reach your target audience (and you don’t anticipate that changing), it is a non-starter to even consider building on top of the platform. However, platforms that efficiently allow you to reach your target audience are very desirable.

For example, at all the tech conferences I’ve attended over the last year it has been striking that a high percentage of the audience are iPhone users. In one session at SXSW this year, the panelist asked the audience to raise their hand if they owned an iPhone and probably 75% of the crowd raised their hand. If you had an idea to build a mobile application that was targeted at innovators and early adopters in the technology industry, the iPhone market might actually be the audience with the greatest reach for your app. I would argue this is true even if other platforms have more total users right now.

On the other hand, if an application had a broader target market then other platforms might make more sense. That is clearly the type of application that Yahoo!’s mobile platform is targeting. Adam Taggart shared the following statistics in our interview:

We are now in the process of developing a mobile ecosystem that is intended to serve eventually billions of mobile consumers. And I had to use the word “billions” there very specifically because it differentiates our strategy versus other people in the industry. Most of the people who are taking a very highly optimized approach around the specific device type or a specific operating system, which is great … So if we’ll take the iPhone for example, you know, a phenomenal, fantastic device and very, very popular. They will probably sell in the middle of this year their two millionth iPhone … So while you’re promoting a very good experience, you’re providing really just a very thin sliver of the total market of consumers out there with phones.

Issue 2: Growth of Audience

One of hockey great Wayne Gretsky’s most famous quotes is, “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” In many ways, the art of choosing a platform is very much the same. Companies need to be more focused on the platform that will be most valuable in the future, instead of picking what is most popular at the time of development.

In social applications right now, an interesting aspect of this will be web based email clients. In our interview, Lance Takuda expected that major services would end up leveraging OpenSocial versus using the Facebook Platform or building another platform. Listening to Lance talk about the 250 million users that web based email clients represent, it was clear that RockYou has aspirations to dominate this space. I would guess that rival web app maker Slide is targeting it as well. However, I also anticipate companies focused on improving the email experience, such as Xobni to compete aggressively once the web based email clients go live.

Of course, while web based email platforms serve as a good example, the overarching point is that if you are designing and developing software on a platform, make sure you’re building for where the users are going to be, not where they have been, to give your application the best chance of long term success.

If you’re really good at anticipating where users are going, you can end up with what is often called the “first mover advantage.” RockYou is a great example of this. They were one of the early companies to recognize the significance of the Facebook platform and released numerous social applications as soon as it opened up. They were thus able to leverage that quick response to become ‘the fastest growing company in the world in terms of user acquisition … basically hav[ing] grown to 60 million users in about 26 months.’

Issue 3: Value of that Audience

Interestingly, ‘value’ can be looked at in a number of different ways. For example, RockYou focuses on an audience’s value to advertisers – specifically, in their case, looking at the geography of where users live. To an advertiser, a teenager in the United States is high value demographic, so that is one of the reasons they are specifically building apps for US teen heavy social networks.

However, as we recently pointed out free to end users is sometimes a dangerous approach. You might want to think about the service fees different audiences on different platforms might be willing to pay directly. If you do, it’s important to consider how efficient the payment mechanism is. For example, Facebook is building a payment system as an integrated part of their platform.

Technology Issues

In addition to the issues around the audience, you can’t overlook the pragmatic issues around technology. Specifically, there are two technology factors you need to take into account:

  • Issue 4: Capability to Support Desired User Experience
  • Issue 5: Efficiency of Developing on Platform

Issue 4: Capability to Support Desired User Experience

When you build on top of a platform, you often inherit a set of limitations that are either business decisions by the creators or simply technical limitations based on the way it was developed. While we are very excited about the applications coming out with the upcoming iPhone SDK, it is interesting to look at some of the limitations that SDK imposes upon developers.

For example, according to Wired, developers are not able to create programs that continuously run as a background thread. This clearly limits the functionality a group creating an instant messenger tool might be able to create. In this case, I believe it’s unclear whether that is simply a technical limitation or a business restriction. It could be a business limitation if Apple were planning on releasing their own chat application, as some have speculated.

On the other hand, the iPhone also has certain capabilities that previous mobile platforms did not, which is why we believe that Apple will dominate next generation computing.

Issue 5: Efficiency of Developing on Platform

Another important issue to take into consideration is how efficiently your team is able to develop its application. Specifically, this takes into account things like how well documented the platform is and what tools have been created to make development more efficient. David Glazer pointed out there is an interesting effect of having a compelling audience (the three issues above) on these tools and documentation being created:

There’s a virtuous cycle that goes on where as a particular environment has high reach, it attracts a lot of developers. When it attracts a lot of developers, there’s a lot of value in creating the tools to make it more efficient to develop for that platform.

It is also important to take into consideration any situation where there may be slightly different deployments of a general platform. For example, the OpenSocial platform is slightly different on MySpace than Hi5 and the Facebook platform being leveraged by Bebo is also slightly different. Lance Takuda commented:

For example, between MySpace and Hi5, there’s only about 20% overhead in supporting both. Whereas from Facebook to MySpace, there’s almost a rewrite involved.

He also confirmed that it is a similar 20% overhead in supporting an application across the Facebook and Bebo platforms.


When you look at RockYou’s rapid user growth over the past 26 months, it’s obvious that people can build successful businesses on top of different platforms. However, it is critical that developers evaluate the right platform for their application. We’ve laid out a list of 5 critical dynamics to consider. What factors did we overlook or which dynamics should we have highlighted? Please let us know in the comments below!

[Note: This post drew heavily on three recent interviews on our podcast, ReadWriteTalk. If you’d like to listen in on future interviews, please consider subscribing in iTunes or via your favorite RSS client.

Image credits: Audience Photo & Technology Perspective & The Great One

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