Matching platforms to ecosystems

When comparing rival platforms and ecosystems to Salesforce.com's Force.com and AppExchange programs, it's as well to keep in mind Marc Andreessen's recent assertion that there are three types of Internet platform.
Written by Phil Wainewright, Contributor

Who has the bigger SaaS ecosystem? Salesforce.com, or Dell after its acquisition last month of Everdream? I was bemused to see this question examined in a ding-dong trio of posts by Josh Greenbaum and Dan Farber at the tail-end of last week. By coincidence, I took a call with Jamcracker on Friday, whose ecosystem I'd say is much more comparable to Everdream's than Salesforce's, and I'll be discussing the comparison in my next posting [disclosure: Jamcracker is a recent client]. It turns out that what Josh is really trying to do is to goad Salesforce.com into releasing more data about how much business its partners actually generate through AppExchange:

"I remain unconvinced that Salesforce.com is deserving of category leadership in SaaS platforms when Everdream is there to show us how to do a better job for its ecosystem partners. But if anyone really wants to settle this once and for all, let's hear directly from Salesforce.com on this topic."

To seek greater transparency is always a noble quest, but on this occasion I feel it's ill-served by attempting to rope Everdream into such a hopelessly flawed comparison. The trouble is, the word 'platform' covers a multitude of different phenomena, as Marc Andreessen set out in his September posting on The three types of platform you meet on the Internet. The post is well worth reading in its entirety, but here's a useful summary taken from it:

  • "A Level 1 platform's apps run elsewhere, and call into the platform via a web services API to draw on data and services — this is how Flickr does it.
  • "A Level 2 platform's apps run elsewhere, but inject functionality into the platform via a plug-in API — this is how Facebook does it. Most likely, a Level 2 platform's apps also call into the platform via a web services API to draw on data and services.
  • "A Level 3 platform's apps run inside the platform itself — the platform provides the 'runtime environment' within which the app's code runs."

Andreessen classes Salesforce.com as a 'Level 3' platform (along with his own company, Ning, and a couple of other examples). Such platforms, he adds, appeal to a completely different developer ecosystem than the first two:

"Here's what's magical: the level of technical expertise required of someone todevelop on your platform drops by at least 90%, and the level of money they need drops to $0. Which opens up development to a universe of people for whom developing on a Level 2 or Level 1 platform is prohibitively difficult or expensive."

This is the distinction that makes Salesforce.com's Force.com platform qualitatively different from Everdream's closed-API system (which on Andreessen's scale I guess would be a Level 0 platform, since its unpublished, proprietary API is only available to contracted partners). Of course, any software vendor that's already managed to bring a product to market isn't going to going to get the full Level 3 benefit of Force.com, because they've already invested the development dollars that Force.com would have saved them. Perhaps that's one reason why the Salesforce.com partners Josh Greenbaum meets are less keen on it than those he doesn't.

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