It's the platform, stupid, says Google engineer

It's the platform, stupid, says Google engineer

Summary: Google engineer Steve Yegge accidentally published a brilliant but widely misunderstood treatise on the importance of Platform-first development.

TOPICS: Google

Have you ever let your frustrations about something simmer and build until you can no longer stand the pressure and it all comes out in a long-winded tirade? Feels great, doesn't it? Cathartic. But then a stunned silence falls over your audience, and a whisper of doubt starts to enter your mind. Should I have said that? Was it too harsh? Is this going to offend people? Should I start updating my resume?

That's what happened to Google developer Steve Yegge this week. The only reason we heard about it was that he also committed the social media equivalent of hitting the "Reply to all" button, and posted his missive to the world instead of just to his coworkers at Google. Oops.

The classic

The classic "deer in the headlights" look.

Immediately, he regretted it, agonized about it for a while, and eventually ended up pulling the post. Not before people made copies of course. Many bloggers and news organizations picked up the story, and spread his name and story all over the internet.

Unfortunately almost everyone missed the point entirely.

Here's a sampling of the coverage that compelled me to write:

Now, I've written a few headlines myself, and I understand all about hyperbole and grabbing attention. But even if you go deeper into most articles and read beyond the headline, they still miss the point, and I think, do Steve's comments a great injustice.

So do yourself, and Mr. Yegge, a favor. Before forming an an opinion about the article, take a few minutes to actually read the article. Here's a link to that copy again. Go ahead, read it. I'll wait. Then come back and tell me it isn't one of the most brilliant essays you've ever read. I think it's Honest. Heartfelt. Funny. Insightful. Courageous. Hard hitting. And spot-on accurate.

First of all, it's not about Google+ at all. That was just used as an example to illustrate his point. Steve could have used any number of other products, including my favorite pet peeve - Google Translate.

For Translate, Google did a web site product and a web services mashup-friendly API. Then they killed the API because people were using it too much. That left developers like me who were building on top of the API in the lurch because we didn't have anywhere else (except maybe Bing) to turn.

Consider what would have happened if Google had killed the web site instead of the API. Then somebody else, probably a lot of somebodies including other groups in Google, could have built their own sites and apps on top of the API. There would have been innovation as developers tried to do interesting new things with the underlying service, such as mashing it up with other services and social networks, improving the quality through crowdsourcing, running multiple translations and comparing the results, and a thousand other things I can't even think of.

Now consider Eclipse. There's an organization that got the right focus very early on. Eclipse started as an IDE, basically a fancy editor and program building tool for geeks. But then the designers realized that the core of the product was a Platform. With some work, the Platform was exposed and the result was an explosion of creativity and commerce that continues to this day. A book I wrote about Eclipse 6 years ago is still selling well, and Eclipse is celebrating 10 years of success in November.

The power of a Platform-oriented mindset, and the point of Steve Yegge's article is this: good Platforms enable not just your own products (the things you can think of and have time for) but a whole bunch of other stuff you haven't even thought of. Amazon, Eclipse, Facebook, Salesforce, and others have figured this out already. Have you?

Topic: Google

Ed Burnette

About Ed Burnette

Ed Burnette is a software industry veteran with more than 25 years of experience as a programmer, author, and speaker. He has written numerous technical articles and books, most recently "Hello, Android: Introducing Google's Mobile Development Platform" from the Pragmatic Programmers.

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  • Some may have missed that point (somehow?) but if you think G+ is

    "just an example" then you're missing something even bigger. The fact that G+ (specifically) is not built on top of a public platform shows that for all googles impressive search share growth and ad revenue growth and blah blah blah, they don't get the core search business either. Imagine that despite having achieved everything they have, they need facebook to pull a myspace in order for it all not to come crashing down.
    Johnny Vegas
  • RE: It's the platform, stupid, says Google engineer

    I'm not a dev, tho I play one on tv (or not). So .... what's a "platform"? I don't understand the point of this article at all. Talking about an API ... an API is a doorway to something else (a program or application of some sort by definition), it doesn't exist in a vacuum. What's on the other side of the example API and where's the relevence to "platforms"? What's the relationship between IDE and "platform"? And for that matter, how does one turn an IDE into a "platform"?

    I like reading technical articles, I hate vague and nebulous "meta articles" like this ... talking about a discussion of a thing, instead of discussing the thing itself? Mr Burnette, what are you talking about here?
    Gravyboat McGee
    • RE: It's the platform, stupid, says Google engineer

      You're right, an API doesn't exist in isolation. The point of the original Yegee essay is to point out that Google should be building platforms, not just products. By this he means that the products should expose many of their APIs to the outside world. This allows third-party developers to implement companion software, on top of the product - which becomes a "platform" because it supports building other applications/features.
    • RE: It's the platform, stupid, says Google engineer

      @Tivolier A platform is the software equivalent of that big green or red flat base you can buy for Legos that is covered with pegs you can attach blocks to. You can build a Lego building on the carpet but using the base makes it easier and more stable. Also if you and a friend are building two halves of an arch, with the base you're guaranteed they will fit together snugly.
      Ed Burnette
      • RE: It's the platform, stupid, says Google engineer

        @Ed Burnette Isn't this what Google have done with AppEngine, and Google Apps? OK, its not enough, but...
  • perhaps this is the real reason for the 'one privacy policy to rule them al