Courtesy of the Vilna Shul, Boston

Last night Boston’s Vilna Shul hosted an event in its continuing Speaker Series, “Today’s Platform Preferences.” Talking about and debating Web and mobile platforms in a Shul was an interesting experience. That it was in a Shul in Beacon Hill, significantly noted for tracing the path of Jews in America, combined with the current 20th century architectural restoration project that is going on at Vilna Shul made the night even more special.

Chris Herot, Chief Product Officer of VSee Lab, and a personal acquaintance of mine moderated the panel. On the panel were:

  • Ravi Mehta, VP Products, Viximo
  • Brad Rosen, CEO, Drync
  • Michael Troiano, President, Holland-Mark Digital

Photo by Randy Giusto

Years ago, platform discussions always centered around PC versus Mac, and maybe a little Unix sprinkled in. But today, in the age of smartphones and connected consumer electronics platforms go beyond being just development tools. They have app stores that serve as routes to market for applications.

The audience was a mix of mobile developers, movers and shakers in Boston’s tech community, and capital markets (VCs and Angels). I’m going to recreate some of the discussion from last night, which means a little paraphrasing and embellishing, and my thoughts as well, which will be italicized.

Facebook LogoQ: What changed the definition of a platform?

For Ravi Mehta, it was Facebook. “It became compelling when anyone in their garage or bedroom could write a Facebook app and instantly deploy it to well over a million people. It used to be about HTML.”

For Mike Troiana, Facebook resulted in the platformization of business strategy. “It made many things irrelevant because it lit everything up!” Applications are creating additional value for the social network, once they opened the API, and new use cases emerged like walls, photos, games, and apps.

For Brad Rosen, while Facebook changed the landscape on the Web, Apple changed it for mobile. But the iPhone ecosystem is rapidly changing. “The model for the App Store today doesn’t let the developer make a lot of money since they have to pay for platform access and give up 30% of what they sell.” He noted that it’s hard to get noticed in a world of 120,000 apps unless you get touched by Apple and get promoted. Most of the time, you go it alone, so it’s hard to build a sustainable business around an iPhone app.

As was stated, it used to be about HTML, but today we have easier to use tools that are in the hands of people without deep programming backgrounds, and we get apps!  While ease of use is still very critical, ease to market has become a very important differentiator in mobile.

Twitter LogoQ: Is Twitter a platform or just a plat?

Rosen stated that when a central owner controls participation, it’s not a platform.  One good example of this was QUALCOMM and BREW. If they enable people to develop new use cases, it’s a platform, like Facebook. But Twitter is not a platform; it’s a distribution method.

I kind of agree. Twitter’s a new type of broadcast feed. Many apps were written around the API to measure the impact of the broadcast message and the community that consumes it.

Q: Do you buy platforms or apps?

Mehta stated that people buy platforms for killer apps and that a platform has to have a lot of apps to really open up distribution. Dan Bricklin, who was in the audience stated that people look for general-purpose platforms that might support things you might be able to do in the future. Apple’s “There’s an app for that” campaign made you feel good about what you could do beyond your basic needs.  At first, Steve Jobs was saying, “We have a browser, you don’t need apps,” but that has come full circle now at Apple.

swimming_poolBathtubHerot asked the three people in the audience why they had bought their iPads. Bricklin pointed out that there’s 40,000 iPhone developers and a lot of them wanted more touch support capabilities. He’s developed iPhone apps, so he needed an iPad. He also noted that the iPad is special. It doesn’t have a killer app at the moment. “It’s about as different from the iPhone as a bathtub is to a swimming pool!” But he noted that it has the same business problems that iPhone has.

Again, for the record, I’m pleasantly surprised by the iPad’s performance and display quality. It’s a blank slate looking for new and innovative apps that couldn’t be done on an iPhone due the screen size. It’s a great content consumption device, but I would not discount it as a content creation device either. With iWorks apps for $10 each, email support, now also WordPress for iPad now out, I can be very productive with it.

Someone commented that many apps in the Apple App Store are features, and not apps. Things that turn the screen a certain color, or measure something. They end up being an extended feature of the iPhone.  Another person commented that we haven’t seen what the iPad can do either. Penguin, for example will be porting their iPhone app to iPad so you can hold it up to the night sky, and based on your location using the 3G chip with positioning, be able to tell what stars you’re looking at.

Q: To what extent does the platform motivate the app?


Courtesy of Marvel Comics

Rosen said to look at what Marvel Comics was doing with their iPad app (Dan Bricklin had it on his iPad), and that the notion of credit card purchasing in the app store with micropayments along with in-app payments will open up a lot of opportunity for developers and content players.

I’d have to agree, and I wrote about it when Apple activated this capability in the SDK. You won’t be able to build a business around a single app or even a collection of apps these days, because it’s a race to the bottom as far as pricing goes in the iPhone App Store. But selling the next issue of consumable content from within the app itself creates a sustainable revenue stream for developers and content providers, especially if they can grow a sizable subscriber base off of their app or content.

FarmvilleQ: Is it about the content or the app?

A person in the audience stated that if you’re talking about the Wall Street Journal or Marvell, its really about content. Rosen responded by saying that with the 3G version of iPad and future Windows and Android tablets you’ll see more geo-located relevant content. Mehta posited that it’s getting harder to establish the difference between apps and content. “What is Farmville?”

I think for consumers, the line between app and content is increasingly blurring, but those of us in the industry will still debate the differences. Especially as mobile apps debut serving as viewers to content residing back on a website somewhere, but formatted for the mobile screen.

Q: Of all the platforms out there, which ones are easy to work with versus the ones that are difficult to work with?

For Troiano, Firefox was one of the easy platforms to work with. Apple was easy to embrace because it was all about emotion. “Steve Jobs understands emotion!” BREW and anything Verizon did was the worst to work with as far as he was concerned.

For Rosen, iPhone was easy from a development standpoint and you knew the constraints that were imposed, while RIM’s BlackBerry platform was increasingly becoming a painful experience. He asked how many in the audience had BlackBerries and about half did (there were about 40 people in the audience). He then asked of those who has them, who was happy with their BlackBerry, and more than half the hands went down. Many in the audience commented that the reason was that their BlackBeries were issued them. The general sentiment was that the experience of finding, downloading, and using apps from BlackBerry App World has become a painful experience and that RIM was digging itself a hole if it didn’t fix this issue fast. Acquisition and installation on iPhone and Android were seen as vastly superior.

BlackBerry logoI’ve consistently run into a BlackBerry backlash within the developer community lately. Consistent complaints are about memory problems, the emulator, the lack of marketing of BlackBerry App World, and lack of interest from RIM on consumer-focused app developers, while the company designs and pushes more devices to consumers. RIM’s improving the browser (WebKit-based but not rolled out yet) and two days ago rolled out updated Java and web-based tools to simplify creation of feature-rich applications. BlackBerry Java Plug-In for Eclipse v1.1 leverages Eclipse 3.5 to build, debug, profile and simulate apps across a variety of BlackBerry simulators, devices and multiple OS versions. But there’s stil too many simulators and too many versions of the OS out there. BlackBerry Web Plug-In v2.0 allows developers to create web apps, content and widgets using HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and AJAX, also reducing simulator testing and debugging time. BlackBerry Java SDK v5.0 now has more than 20,000 APIs and OpenGL ES support for 3D graphics, touchscreen and accelerometer, pre-built UI components, SQLite support, and Location Based Services APIs for cell-site geolocation, GPS, geocoding and reverse geocoding. But I think the problem’s not just the lack of tools until a few days ago, but the developer program itself. RIM needs to better educate the developer community. Most developers don’t develop for one platform; they frequently support three, and they are drawing sharp comparisons and iPad has emerged as a viable platform behind iPhone and Android.

For Mehta, Facebook was his favorite because of the API and that it was a socially driven platform. He named no evil empires.

firefox_apple-logo2Facebook Logo

android-logo-300x297Android came up, and the feeling was that because of its open source nature and ease of development, it will continue to flourish and on multiple platforms. I address much of this in my Android Ecosystem report that’s available now, and go into the platform and developer expectations more in depth.

Someone in the audience asked— “What about Microsoft?” And the consensus from the panel was that there’s no longer an emotional connection between consumers and anything that Microsoft produces other than Xbox. Like many attendees last night who had BlackBerries, many people use Microsoft’s applications because of corporate decisions, but there is little passion in actually using them.

If you get a chance, put the Vilna Shul on your list of off the beaten path Boston tourist sites, and check out its architectural restoration project.



– Randy Giusto