It's the platform, stupid, says Google engineer

Google engineer Steve Yegge accidentally published a brilliant but widely misunderstood treatise on the importance of Platform-first development.
Written by Ed Burnette, Contributor

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 translate.google.com 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?

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