Platforms and Innovation

I started my career writing flash applications. Then I moved to Java. Both are middleware technologies that abstract the underlying operating system and enable cross-platform interoperability. I’ve actually never wrote a professional application that relied directly on a specific operating system.

This was fine to me. “Write once, run everywhere” was great for productivity.

For the kind of applications I was developing, what these middleware stacks provided was enough. Maybe I occasionally wished that drag and drop between the application and its host system was better supported, but that’s it more or less. I didn’t really miss a deeper integration with the rest of the system.

These technologies were also innovative on their own. Flash enabled developers to create rich web applications back in a time when web sites were mostly static. The same was true of Java and its applets, even if the technology never really took off.

But middleware technologies also slow down innovation.

An operating system provider wants developers to adopt its new functionalities as quickly as possible, to innovate and make the platform attractive. Middleware technologies make such adoption harder and slower.

The official Apple memo “Thoughts on Flash” about not supporting Flash on iOS makes it very clear:

We know from painful experience that letting a third party layer of software come between the platform and the developer ultimately results in sub-standard apps and hinders the enhancement and progress of the platform.

The informal post “What really happened with Vista” gives similar arguments against middleware stacks:

Applications built on [cross-platform] middleware tend to target “lowest common denominator” functionality and are slower to take advantage of new OS capabilities.

For desktop applications, a good integration with the operating system was a plus, but not a killer. The drag and drop functionality I occasionally missed didn’t impact the whole user experience.

With mobile devices, everything is different.

Mobile applications are more focused and need to integrate on the device seamlessly–in terms of user experience, but also connectivity and power consumption. That’s what “Thoughts on Flash” was about.

Think of notifications. Notifications for desktop applications are nice, but not a killer. For a mobile application, how the application integrates with notifications makes the difference between success and failure. Notifications are becoming the heart of the smartphone experience. You don’t want there to suck.

Or think of ARKit, Apple’s upcoming augmented reality toolkit. Augmented reality hasn’t yet really hit the mass market and there is lots of potential there. If only, it will make our good old fashion ruler obsolete to measure distances. But such a toolkit relies on specific hardware (sensor, CPU, camera). You don’t want middleware there to slow down adoption.

Platforms diverge and sometimes converge. They diverge when exclusive capabilities are added and converge when a cross platform standard is adopted.

With HTML5 we have a good standard for regular applications with desktop-like features. The GMail mobile web application is for instance so well done, that I prefer it to the native iOS version. But you can only go that far with HTML5. If you want to push the envelope, you need to go native and use the full power of the platform.

For applications in the broader context of the digitalization (social media, artificial intelligence, internet of things) innovation at the platform level will be decisive.

The platform war will intensify.


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