Everything's a platform now

The latest enterprise IT buzzword is 'platform.' It seems there's more prestige in being a platform than there is in being a great application. But is that true?

Enterprise IT is rife with buzzwords that put a name to technology trends -- often when they're still just a gleam in the eye. The media, analysts and vendors alike are guilty of fanning the flames by coming up with new buzzwords when the current cadre loses steam.

That's not to say that these technologies don't have real value. The cloud, big data, consumerization, BYOD and, more recently, digital transformation all started as little more than hype. But today the cloud is seen as a viable, if not the de facto, way of doing business. I would argue that the consumerization of IT and the bring-your-own-device trends gave rise to the digital transformation many enterprises are now working toward. And first-generation big data initiatives are paying off.

The latest buzzword I'm hearing is platform -- a term that's being thrown around by enterprise software startups to describe their products. It seems there's more prestige in being a platform than there is in being a great application.

I saw this firsthand at series of CIO Dinners I hosted with a hot Silicon Valley startup -- one that has attained the vaunted status of unicorn, valued at more than $1 billion. The company is trying to position its offering as a platform so enterprise IT leaders will consider using it to build additional applications, rather than simply using it as a feature-rich application on its own. It treated the dinners as in-front-of-the-glass focus group sessions.

A matter of semantics?

I think the API economy is muddying the waters on the platform vs. application discussion. Many startups are building their software on open technologies and are looking to broker relationships with other software players, via APIs, to strengthen their products. But does opening up your software to APIs make it a platform? Or is it just a feature-rich application?

This issue has even made its way into mainstream entertainment. One of the key themes of Season 3 of HBO's hit show Silicon Valley was startup Pied Piper trying to position its offering as a platform instead of a "box" that's plugged into the data center. We learn that Pied Piper's CEO, Richard Hendricks, will go to great lengths to ensure that it is considered a platform, thus making it more valuable in the minds of users and investors -- and more prestigious for top developers to work on.

It remains to be seen how many of today's startups will fare: Will their systems be platforms, applications, boxes? Will they be acquired so their applications can strengthen other vendors' platforms, or will they just fizzle out?

I can tell you that at the many dinners I hosted with my client, not one IT exec viewed the startup's technology as a platform. But I don't think they held that against them either.

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