“Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It's not about money. It's about the people you have, how you're led, and how much you get it.” - Steve Jobs

Platforms become utilities when …

Ever since the Facebook (We own your content) debacle of awhile ago, I have been thinking about how products and services move from being just a product/service to becoming a platform to really becoming a utility (no matter how much they resist). Most organizations don’t even acknowledge this transition until it is too late, and even fewer plan for it happening in their strategy development.

But what does this mean to us as designers and what does it mean to us as builders and users of systems from a sociological level?

I’m going to jump to the punch line…

1) The Iranian elections have underscored how private services are required as tools on top of the open network. The Internet by itself is meaningless with the applications, cum platforms, cum utilities that run on top of them. There is now almost an inalienable right that exists on these platforms as they have become even more important as part of the 4th and 5th estates or even form the creation of a 6th estate.

2) As noted above the debacle of Facebook attempting to claim ownership of people’s content would be the same as my ISP trying to do the same. They manage my SMTP services which are required for sending basic email in the same way that Facebook is used for comments, photos, messages, etc. It is on a different layer of the platform, but IS a part of the platform and like the ISP itself is now a utility for 100’s of millions of users.

3) The AT&T, Apple and Google Voice controversy also highlights the issues surrounding platform and utility. While no one would ever deny that AT&T is a utility, Apple is finding itself as a higher level stack on that utility, in the strange position of being judged as a platform on that utility and thus may be expected to have the same responsibilities of fairness and openness that AT&T is required to maintain.

As designers/developers …

Apple obviously is a design it for the human company, but it does so at with a design philosophy that is quite parental. It creates an environment that coddles and protects the humans who use their products and services from themselves even if it means creating artificial and arguably damaging limitations.

This design philosophy works when one thinks about tools and services, but begins to fall flatter when one thinks about a platform for developing and definitely falls apart when we think of that platform as a utility service (or the embodiment of a utility service).

Yes, I know it is very fair to say that AT&T has lots of options for different platforms and each platform can decide how open it wants to be and thus the end user is making a CHOICE and is not limited at the utility level.

As designers though when we design tools we need to put a heavy emphasis on envisioning our tools distant future to understand how a simple tool like Twitter can become a requirement for free speech and democracy. This is not just an academic task, but it is one that helps designers and engineers build today extensibility into their tools based on that understanding.

The best way I have seen to do this is through storyboard and video scenario prototyping. Obviously, you have to be mindful of your resources. But what I have seen in too many organizations is the lack of forethought. They boot strap to start w/o thought to the future (3-5yrs out) and hit a wall b/c their funding efforts do not allow for a re-construction which is required for this sort of movement. Most successful orgs I’ve seen embed this extensible growth into their original development/design path.

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