‘It’s a Platform,’ He Kept Saying

2/28/2011 12:01 AM Eastern

and four interviews, one word came
up over and over and over. Twentyeight
times, to be specific.

Maybe this one’s popping up with
unsettling regularity in your world,
too: Platform. Conversationally, it
emerges like this (from last week’s
batch of notes):

“You have to have it across multiple
platforms to get the scale you

“We’re going to pre-integrate from APIs from
other platforms.”

“It’s a platform abstraction layer.”

What? “Platform” elicits the same kind of glazeover
as “edge,” as in “the edge of the network.” The
definition depends on who’s talking. (Pretty sure my
head will explode upon first mention of “the edge of
the platform.”)

So let’s start in the tactile world. Here, in the
(blessed!) physical, non-digital world, a platform is a
purpose-built, elevated structure, for the purpose of
displaying something to an audience.

In the digital world, platforms are much more
amorphous. Everybody has one.

Depending on a person’s knowledge precinct, a
platform might be a grouping of software products.
Or it could be a reference to particular groupings of
stuff — gadgets plumbed for Android; encoders that
ingest a stream of video, then spit it out in 20 different
formats; or servers that perform a particular
function (“our VOD platform”).

In cable, “platform” tends to be a sweeping reference
to every back-office function that used to be
associated with specific, “siloed” services, but are
now linked to work together, with the formerly proprietary
stuff weeded out.

Getting your head around “platform” makes
more sense when viewed with historical context:
Cable grew town by town, franchise by franchise.
Gear varied, one system to the next. Digital video
arrived with its own set of vendors and techniques.
Broadband, while digital, grew up with a different set
of vendors and techniques. Likewise for billing systems,
service activation and device provisioning.

Without “platforms,” adding a new feature to any
service meant phoning one of four billing providers,
putting the feature on its development list — then
waiting 18 months. It meant working within “the
duopoly” of set-top conditional-access systems, to
move it through that twist of secured instructions.

Ultimately, platforms represent the Big Unification
that will get new services and apps to market
much more swiftly. They’re the software bridges
that span all of the decisions made before operator
and vendor consolidation. For now, though, and like
“edge,” when you come upon a platform, it helps to
halt the conversation and ask for a definition.

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