What is a platform?

Leading up to the Web 2.0 Conference in San Francisco on 5-7 October, many people are asking: what is Web 2.

Leading up to the Web 2.0 Conference in San Francisco on 5-7 October, many people are asking: what is Web 2.0? It's a difficult question to answer, because it can mean different things to different people. The most common explanation is that Web 2.0 means the current generation of the Web, where the Web is used as a development platform. I had a go at an elevator pitch definition today, for non-technical users - because I believe Web 2.0 is far more than just XML, APIs, Ajax and other acronyms. It's also about user-created content, collaboration, remixing, giving up control of your data, and a whole lot of other things. So how does all that relate to the concept of a 'platform'?

First things first. In a purely technical sense, the Wikipedia definition comes as close as anyone to a succinct definition:

"Web 2.0 is a term often applied to a perceived ongoing transition of the World Wide Web from a collection of websites to a full-fledged computing platform serving web applications, like Gmail, to end users. The proponents of this thinking expect that ultimately Web 2.0 services will replace desktop computing applications for many purposes."

Now let's step back and consider what it means to be a 'platform'. I came across a definition I like in a comment Emil Sotirov made on Jeff Jarvis' weblog. Emil said that in the context of his work at AidPage "we call platform the thing that we want to enable (”people aid people”)… and not the web media by which we would enable it." 

This is what I have been exploring in relation to Web 2.0. Developers building software platforms is just one half of what Web 2.0 means. The other half is what everyday people build on top of those platforms.

Of course platforms are important in the business sense too. In a recent interview, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said they have 80,000 developers signed up for Amazon Web Services, plus "over 800,000 sellers on the Amazon platform and 47 million customers". He goes on to talk about some platform examples in Amazon:

"We have this third-party services business where we operate a marketplace on Amazon.com. Today that's 26 percent of the units that we sell. We're not the seller; we just make the real estate on our web site available for others to use. That's been a very, very successful service. We only started doing it four years ago and it has worked very well. You could argue that's also a kind of platform."

That's an indication of the business value of making your web-based service into a platform. And not only is the third-party services platform profitable for Amazon, it's presumably profitable for the thousands of third-party sellers who sell their wares on it. Likewise AidPage as a platform for "people aiding people" benefits both the website owners and the users who request and contribute aid.

So Web 2.0 is the Web as a platform. But don't forget that it's not just about techies developing software on the Web, it's about everyday people using the Web as a platform for community, business, media and life in general.