The Power of Platforms over Products

Currently I’m at the ICTD conference in Doha, Qatar. I’m here with Ken Banks to do a joint demonstration on how Ushahidi and FrontlineSMS have both profited from partnering where it makes sense. Really, it’s about the power of open platforms and how separate ones can strengthen each other when they work together.

Brenda of FreedomFone, Erik of Ushahidi, Ken of FrontlineSMS and Stefan of W3C
Brenda of FreedomFone, Erik of Ushahidi and Ken of FrontlineSMS

One of the discussion points that has kept coming up in conversations here is how powerful platforms are over single products. In this case, I define a technology platform as a basic tool that provides unique functionality that can then be customized for many uses outside of what the original creators could have done on their own. A product, on the other hand, is also a tool, but one that has a specific purpose – one that can’t be extended.

So, I see a platform as a foundation, a product is a specialized tool.

The FrontlineSMS/Ushahidi relationship

To this point, we’ve baked FrontlineSMS into the platform. Basically, we make it easy to do one of two things. First, if you have a FrontlineSMS setup already going, you can just layer Ushahidi on top of that and sync the data for visualization purposes. Second, if you’re about to start using Ushahidi and need a local number, we get you started on FrontlineSMS as a way to create that local gateway to gather and sync SMS messages.

This is possible because both of us have open platforms. We can continue to build our own tools, focusing on the needs of each of the users that we support. However, because of the open nature, we are able to easily access and utilize each others platforms.

It’s simple, it lets each group go after their own self-interest, and it works.

Needless to say, this isn’t just us, but it’s an example of how platforms can work together to become more than the sum of their individual parts. You can see the same type of interaction happening between other organizations, like InSTEDD and JavaRosa, with OpenMRS and Android.

A couple of platforms in the ICTD space

  • FrontlineSMS is a platform. It simply lets you setup a localized SMS gateway.
  • Ushahidi is a platform. It allows for the gathering of distributed data via mobile phone, email and the web, then the ability to visualize and manage that data.
  • FreedomFone is another platform. It’s an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system, that allows people to interact via voice, not just text. Highly useful in many parts of the world, not just Africa.

3 Responses to “The Power of Platforms over Products”

  1. Good stuff, all these 3 platforms have great potential for the future (Fan of all 3) and it is good to see key people working together – however IMHO the potential will only be FULLY realised when they have push button installation, good well documented APIs and are wrapped up within /tied up with well marketed products. Platforms and products need each other (see the developer competitions many platforms create).

  2. Like Rob, I am a fan of all three of these platforms as well, especially FreedomFone. However, I am an even bigger fan of the idea behind this article, the ‘open platform’ and working synergistically when it is beneficial. When the key people of these products get together and start to think about how each company’s platform can enhance the others great things start to happen.