If you’re buying software, you may hear some vendors claiming to be a “platform” rather than just a product. But what does that really mean, and more importantly, why should you care?
Understanding the Value of a Platform
I grew up in the '80s which I view as the great era of toys. G.I. Joe, Transformers, Cabbage Patch Kids, the Lite Brite - it was a good time to be a kid. One toy you may not remember was a line of tiny toy cars called “Micro Machines”. The brilliance of Micro Machines wasn’t simply that they were smaller toy cars. A toy car has held the interest of many small children to be sure, but Micro Machines added something different. Aside from buying the cars, you could buy a small playset which was a scene like a gas station, car wash or firehouse. The brilliance though was that each playset had edges like those of a jigsaw puzzle, and they could connect to any other playset. Now, not only did you have a police station and school, you had a city! It didn’t matter which playsets you already had, they could all connect together, and each child could build their own unique city.
Why this tangent on tiny toy cars? Micro Machines illustrate what a software platform is meant to be. People look for software products to solve a business problem. You purchase Outlook to manage email. You purchase Quickbooks or Xero to manage your finances. You purchase Zoom or GoToMeeting for video conferencing. When software applications are products, they are like a toy car. They serve their purpose, but they are stand-alone objects. If you have many more toy cars, you have a collection of toy cars. Most businesses end up with quite the collection of software products.
If the products are isolated, moving information between systems or departments will be time-consuming, manual, and error-prone. Years ago, certain software leaders recognised that many disparate applications would lead to clunky business processes, and decided the solution was to have one product that solved all business problems. Thus, the Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system was born. The SAP and Oracle-type companies built a single product that would do “everything”. This seems like a good idea at first but comes with many drawbacks. First, can any one product do “everything”? Even if it can, can it be the best product for everything? Additionally, these providers were extremely expensive, and you became locked in. To change software is always a challenge, but imagine changing every piece of software that runs your business, all at once.
The solution that has evolved has the beauty and simplicity of Micro Machines playsets. Software platforms have the tools to fit nicely with other software. You can choose the best tool for each business problem, and still have clean, efficient processes between them. The dream of the Micro Machine city of business processes is possible. The way that software platforms achieve this is by creating mechanisms to connect with other platforms and to build entirely new software.
Many modern software companies have recognised this need and have taken at least some steps toward “playing nicely with others” and some consider themselves a platform. However, when buying software, it is critical to know that not all platforms are created equal.
It may be difficult without a technical background to tell which of these products has really invested in their platform. It’s always best to get an opinion from an engineer, but some things they’ll be looking for are easy enough to understand.
Firstly, engineers want the development toolkits to be easy to use. The core of these toolkits is usually an “API” which stands for Application Programming Interface. Basically, it’s the way engineers can access the data in the application to get data in and out of the system. In order to be easy to use, it must be well documented. Your software provider should be able to point to a developer area with plenty of robust documentation on what is available to an engineer. Additionally, it should be easy for the engineer to give it a try. If they can quickly try it out, they’ll get a good comfort level that they can work with it.
The second point to look for is how much activity there is in updating the toolkit and keeping it modern. Technology changes very rapidly. You may see a developer toolkit that hasn’t changed in five years and think, “that’s not bad”. However, think about the phone you used five years ago. If it had never received an update, you would probably be an unhappy customer. In order to keep up with modern demands, technology must constantly be adapting and changing. A stagnant toolkit is a dead toolkit. Keep these two rules in mind, and you’ll be able to quickly weed out those that aren’t worth considering. From there, by all means, ask an expert.
At Administrate, our mission is to be “The platform for education”. This is a big dream, but it means we firmly believe that investing in the platform matters. IT doesn’t just matter for the tech people out there, but it matters for the day-to-day users, and the business owners. The platform is what will turn your fragmented departments and roles into a fluid, efficient business.