A primer on platforms

The term “platform” is deceptively complex. Although the word originally referred to a physically raised surface on which people or things could stand, metaphorical interpretations are equally foundational. For example, a platform has long been used to denote a set of shared political ideas. (The intersection is the soapbox.) These two conceptions of the word – literal and metaphorical – are helpful in breaking down the current semantic mess around platforms as they play an increasingly important role in the digital age.

Today, platforms can be hardware and software products, services, and a type of business model. They are found in various industries including durable goods, consumer electronics, software and cloud-based applications and services, and also, less obviously, biotechnologies.

Some examples of platforms:

●      Hardware

o      Consumer electronics, e.g. processors, PCs, smartphones

o      Intel processors

o      Citroën 2CV

●      Software

o      Applications, operating systems

o      Android, iOS

●      Services

o      Website

o      Amazon web services

●      Business model

o      Visa card

o      YouTube

For several decades, the term “platform” has been widespread in the technology sphere. One reason for this is that industries have become increasingly complex and fast moving, with multiple players. In order to make the complexity more manageable, it is helpful to stabilise a key component assembly as a platform, and allow technology complementors to work around it. 

In auto manufacturing, platforms are typically a chassis. Its complements are the wheels, engine, body, systems, etc. provided by various specialised suppliers. The same chassis will be recycled across multiple vehicle models, but the specific combination of complements will vary across models. An equivalent in computing is multiple chipsets based on the same processor. In software, the Wintel platform has been a (relatively) stable arrangement of processor and operating system, which has allowed thousands of third-party software publishers worldwide to invest in the development of applications, in spite of an unpredictable and turbulent IT industry, secure in the knowledge that the applications would “work” for many users.

In IT, as in the physical world, a platform is a stable infrastructure that can be built upon. It can refer to hardware (a computer or phone), software (the operating system on the device), and sometimes a combination of both, like the Windows-PC platform or the Android-smartphone platform.

In the technology context, the most basic understanding of “platform” may be as a technological metaphor for the physical platform. Yet, once this sturdy foundation was taken into the realm of Internet, its potential exploded.


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