Why Don't Big Companies Innovate More?
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Stacks and Platforms

Harry-potter-platform
Several good reads recently around the idea of technology company platforms or 'stacks'. Benedict Evans had a good post on how Twitter is becoming more of a platform, beginning as a protocol with third party clients and many different interfaces before pivoting, taking greater control of the interface, developing advertising products, and launching Twitter cards - expanded Tweets that enable users to see more of the content that is being shared rather than just a link.

In the last Digital Shift (quarterly trends webinars I do for Econsultancy), I talked about how this move was all about encouraging as much rich interaction as possible on the platform itself rather than always directing traffic away from it.  The new Lead Generation Cards (which seem to be working well) enable users to securely submit email addresses to a business without leaving Twitter, are a smart use of them, and give a whole new response-driven dimension to the platform. Benedict makes a good point about how cards as an interaction model are spreading widely, becoming part of Google search, a key part of Google Now and the new Airdrop feature in iOS7:

"...they're pulling information out of the app or the service and making it relevant to the moment. They're taking things out of silos, packetising them and making them sharable. But at the same time, they're making them canvases - not just files, but cards, content, real things that you can pass around."

He also makes the point about how many of the new social messaging apps (Kik, Line, WeChat et al) are also starting to create similar types of canvases within their services that enable users to share bits of content like games and coupons. These rich, interactive cards are highly shareable, actionable bits of content and open up all kinds of questions about new forms of distribution, discovery, designing for these kinds of formats and interactions. And they are highly native to mobile.

Back in 2011 I talked about the ‘vertical stack’ as a way of understanding the developing strategy of the large technology players, most notably GAFA: Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon. My friends at Addictive had first used the phrase, but my version of what that looked like incoporated seven key layers at which these companies are developing a strategic presence: Hardware, Operating Sytems, Content (streaming and cloud services), Access (apps and browsers), Payment, Context (location, social graph, identity, personalisation, recommendation, advertising), Messaging. Bruce Sterling has since talked about a similar idea in his closing keynote for SXSW 2012.

The model is a really useful one and just about every development since then can be positioned within the context of the stack. Each of these companies are building eco-systems (I don't really like that word but that's what they are) that are designed to deliver services at multiple layers in this stack, that all have users at the centre ('start with the user and work backwards', to paraphrase Bezos) and that are so good that you never have to leave. Levels that are tied together through data. Systems that take data from one place, and use it to enhance the experience at another. 

And that's the point isn't it? It's all about having as much interaction and activity happening on your platform as possible. The more data that gives you, the more raw material you have to power improved services of all kinds, whether that be about Facebook 'sucking everything into a gravitational well' or, as Benedict Evans describes elsewhere, Google's fundamental strategic need to extend reach and gather data. The growth of the mobile internet intensifies these imperatives:

"a helpful way to look at Google is as a vast, decade-old machine learning project: mobile will feed the machine with far more data, making the barriers to entry in search and adjacent fields even higher, while Plus is the database that ties that data to individual behaviour."

Data may well be the new oil, but as John Naughton said at the weekend, oil is a physcial, non-renewable resource extracted from the earth. Data extracted from the activities of people and machines on the other hand, is infinitely renewable. 

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