Roaming the 3GSM halls and talking to operators and vendors, one thing becomes painfully clear: many players in the mobile space have never experienced an open ecosystem evolved through market forces. This has an effect on how they see the viability of certain approaches in the space.
Let’s look at a specific example of this thinking in the context of phone user experiences. Take any app or phone top design. With a good team and enough money, one can deliver this experience built on everything from plain C to J2ME to S60. By that argument, C, J2ME and Series 60 are viable platforms for phone user experiences. That would be typical mobile operator perspective.
I disagree because this type of thinking fails what I’ve started calling “the ecosystem test”. The ecosystem test asks whether a platform can enable a large group of average, poorly funded players with little to no domain experience deliver compelling solutions and build real businesses on top of the platform. It’s based on the observation that no platform has become hugely successful without a corresponding ecosystem of vendors building significant businesses on top of the platform. Typically, the combined revenues of the ecosystem are a multiple of the revenues of the platform.
A platform that does not pass the ecosystem test will find it difficult to get significant traction because of the high cost of adoption. Passing the ecosystem test allows a platform to enable a vibrant market with much low cost experimentation where surprising killer apps or hits can emerge.
There are examples of platforms that have succeeded while failing the ecosystem test. DOS and Windows are the main examples that come to mind. Sometimes, huge demand drivers, combined with limited competitive environments allow this to happen. Failing the ecosystem test doesn’t mean a platform will not be successful. It just points out that success will be more difficult to achieve.
There are many successful examples of developer platformsVisual Basic, PowerBuilder, many of the Web platforms based on HTML (ColdFusion, PHP, ASP). Flash is a great runtime platform for rich internet applications. Microsoft Office and SharePoint create an emerging platform for knowledge worker apps. Great Plains is a great SMB ERP platform.