Le Web 2009 Roundtable: What Makes A Platform, Exactly?

This is an overview of what was said during the panel conversation at Le Web on Platforms, which was moderated by our own Mike Arrington. (right)

Lots of panelists for this particular discussion – the conference organizers managed to get all of these people on one stage: Ethan Beard (Director, Facebook Developer Network), Cristian Cussen (Director of Business Development at Ning), Brandon Duncan (Director of Platform Engineering at LinkedIn), John Ham (Co-founder & CEO of Ustream), David Jacobs, (VP , Six Apart), Mike Jones (COO, MySpace) and Ryan Sarver (Director of Platform, Twitter).

Michael Arrington: As we’ve learned today, Facebook Connect has really exploded. MySpaceID has had less impressive growth. Any comment on that?

Mike Jones (MySpace): MySpaceID is generally available, we’ve seen it been used on thousands of publisher networks, it’s growing. We think of it as a healthy platform, but we’re obviously going to be pushing more weight behind it – it’s still definitely a vital part of our strategy.

So how many people are actually signing in to websites using MySpaceID?

MJ: I don’t have exact numbers, but we’re talking millions.

You don’t feel like the online identity race is pretty much over, and Facebook and Twitter won?

MJ: I think it’s healthy to have multiple digital identity providers, as long as it makes things easier for both publishers and users.

What about LinkedIn are you guys playing along?

Brandon Duncan (LinkedIn): We recognize the value of the systems, and consider us active in this field. We’re evidently more in the professional sphere than the personal one, and there’s loads of interesting things we can do.

It’s not just about signing in, of course, but also taking your social graph with you wherever you go on the Web. Thoughts?

John Ham (Ustream): the interactive piece of the platform pie, the social aspect of it, is evidently great for live events and thus live broadcasting. We’re showing that off here at Le Web with the livestreaming of the event online and via the iPhone app.

Christian Cussen (Ning): At Ning, we look at it this way: Facebook is great for people who already know each other, Twitter is great for realtime, MySpace for entertainment … at Ning we’d like to allow people who don’t know each other, connect. We’re trending away from the whole friending thing, letting people communicate without actually being connected on the network. We’ll accomodate both of course, we want to both amplify using existing platforms and at the same time make it as lazy as possible for our members to use Ning.

Okay, but Yahoo made great promises about its Inbox 2.0 too and now we see them teaming up with Facebook for the social aspect after all. Do you really think a combination is viable?

CC: Definitely. At Ning, you can have multiple profiles and run more than one network with a single sign-on – adding Facebook Connect as a layer is not going to be a conflict.

BD: Agreed, just take a look at our integration of Twitter and LinkedIn.

There have been rumors about Facebook Connect soon getting deployed all over MySpace. Any comment on that?

MJ: We’re not making any announcements today. Let’s just say we look at all platforms and all possible implementations based on their merit.

Let’s talk about the way developers should be treated by the entity running the platform. Apple hasn’t been treating developers the way they should have, but users don’t seem to be minding all that much. Even though there are capable open platforms out there. Thoughts?

Ryan Sarver (Twitter): we feel we have no choice but to treat developers within our ecosystem extremely well, we need that alignment.

David Jacobs (Six Apart): It’s important to have an open platform, and the iPhone is a unique case for a multitude of reasons. But anyone else would be playing with fire doing it the way Apple does today.

Ethan Beard (Facebook): We have more than 350 million members now, so that’s our key asset, it’s what can make our platform unique. What’s important to us is that user experience has to come first. I actually feel for the guys at Apple for having to manage their platform the way they are supposed to. But then again, our developers demand changes too, and we listen to them.

Is Facebook treating its developers too well, though? Are you being too nice (e.g. Scamville kerfuffle etc.)?

EB: We obviously try to balance things, but we realize full well that we’re unable to solve all problems upfront. We try to be a healthy ecosystem first and foremost, and we address problems quickly in my opinion. The balance between treating developers right and maintaining a high standard in user experience is really the key here.

MJ: Same at MySpace. You want to commit to everything you release to third-party developers, push out things incrementally.

JH: Being a developer on many platforms, I’d say most are treating us right. It’s important for us, evidently, we want them to pay attention to our needs.

Has Apple treated you well?

JH: We just announced the live broadcasting app. Continuing our efforts for the iPhone platform has paid off for us.

And why did you stick with them? Despite the policy, and just because it’s too important to ignore?

JH: It’s very much a strategic platform for us.

BD: You don’t want to prescribe too many things to developers. We want to leverage the developer community so we can have stuff built that we couldn’t or wouldn’t build ourselves. Finding that balance is crucial.

CC: We put the user experience first for Ning Apps. Our most valued users are our network creators, so we wonder how to enable people with limited means make money off our platform, easily and quickly.

Whatever happened to OpenSocial? We don’t hear about it often.

CC: All Ning Apps are based on OpenSocial, so it’s a very crucial element for our strategy.

DJ: we look and consider every platform, because you just never know when and on which one the next killer app is going to surface.

Is OpenSocial still: “build once, deplay anywhere”?

BD: We’re continuing to support opensocial, and we take it seriously.

MJ: OpenSocial is a big part of MySpace too, and it works great. We keep on trying to improve the standards around it. I don’t see any controversy here.

Twitter is still young, and I admit when I first wrote about it I didn’t see the potential. But you’ve also never had the ability to grow along with your users, as it has surged so quickly. Do you feel you’re finally getting ahead of the curve now?

RS: We’ve had to grow up a lot this year, and the partnerships with Google and Microsoft are helping us a great deal. If you look at the numbers, you’ll notice we’ve grown to become much more stable now compared to the early days.

Do you think you have what it takes to scale to a billion users, one of the self-declared targets for Twitter? Will you be able to maintain control over the basic plumbing and keep things centralized?

RS: We think about the future, but a lot needs to be determined still. We don’t have any solid answers to your question at this point.

We need more controversy in this panel. You’re all getting along too much for my taste. But maybe that’s also a sign of the times. What is a platform anymore, anyway?

MJ: well in my opinion what Apple has is not a platform, it’s just a store, like Walmart. MySpace is more of a platform in my opinion: we help developers enhance their applications, not just run and distribute them.

EB: I consider Walmart to be a platform, actually. After all, the store sells stuff that other companies make. We shifted from the App Platform, which was more tech-oriented at first, to Facebook Connect. Now that it’s as broad as it is, we evolved into thinking of FB Connect as a data access layer much more than a platform. After all, you can use it on the Web, for desktop clients, mobile apps, etc.

MJ: What we’re seeing right now is definitely a new type of animal. Twitter is a platform, but it’s also more than that. It’s a different beast, it’s new, and frankly I don’t know how to call it anymore.