And once again we come to a post on co-author Don Tapscott's Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything. This Wikinomics series has just two posts to go; savor it while you can.
Don Tapscott's thesis in this chapter is that we're in an era of what I choose to call "mass platforms"–where a platform is defined as a collection of data/functions provided cheap/free to programmers who want to create new, possibly unexpected applications on top of it. For example:
Housingmaps, created by Paul Rademacher in 2005, combined map data from Google with housing data from craigslist. Using his website, you could see at a glance which houses were for sale in your chosen neighborhood and what the asking prices were. Not a sophisticated system, but: It was arguably the first "mash-up" on the Web–the first application to combine information from two or more platforms.
Google makes its expensively-acquired maps available to programmers free of charge. Why? Because if something valuable is developed with them, Google can 1) buy it and 2) hire its creator (as they did Paul Rademacher). To put it another way, they've outsourced some of their R&D to developers who are willing to work for free. Quite a deal (for Google). (If you go to Programmable Web, by the way, you'll find more than 1000 Google Maps mashups. Whether Google has actually acquired any, I do not know.)
Two other mass platforms are Amazon and eBay, which have opened their respective systems to outside programmers. Their reasoning is similar but not identical: They want (others) to find innovative ways to drive sales. eBay's decision, for example, led to the independent creation Abidia, which lets you track auctions from PDAs and mobiles; other firms make software that allows you to comparison shop (Amazon against other vendors) from your mobile.
Google Maps, Amazon and eBay are systems in their own right–they're useful in and of themselves–but they're also mass platforms on top of which third parties can develop thousands of other applications. Properly set up, this environment can become an ecosystem of benefit to all concerned. Amazon in particular seems to have it right: If your application refers a purchaser to its site, Amazon will give you a cut. In other words, Amazon has found a way to compensate the members of its ecosystem. And, of course, it's also making money hand over fist.
Tim O'Reilly famously said (just once I wish I could say something famously) that "Data is the new Intel Inside," by which he meant that data has become the primary foundation on which value is created. Think of Amazon: Its single most valuable asset is probably the millions of customer reviews it's collected over the years. Or think of eBay, which is nothing but data. I think Tim O'Reilly is right, but because of their power to drive sales and create innovation, I'd recast his aphorism: "Mass platforms are the new Intel Inside." (Hey–that sounds pretty famous.)