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Guest post: Be the platform, not the product

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Paul Maltby

In another post from our series of reports from the West Coast, Paul Maltby, Director of Open Data and Government Innovation in the Cabinet Office, talks platforms.

One of the common issues that emerged in our discussions with scores of tech companies we met on our recent visit to Silicon Valley was that everyone was keen to show how they were a platform, and not just a product.

The difference between the two can be seen in our everyday lives through consumer technology companies such as Apple, Amazon and Google.  They do not just sell us products directly, but also provide a space through which other companies can sell to us, for example through Apple’s App Store, Google’s Play, and Amazon’s MarketPlace.

The companies providing the platform get to control the environment, they get a cut of everyone else’s sales, and they get to own the data that flows around the system. Companies used to want to own the front-line to the consumer.  But in a world where a platform had been introduced, those providing the product occupy a lowly position in the value chain – like the swathes of 69p a throw app developers struggling to make ends meet.

We heard tales of major US retailers who were used to being in the commanding position at the apex of the value chain.  From there, they sold directly to customers and controlled back along a supply chain.  But once they realised - too late - that this was no longer the place where growth was guaranteed, some were scrambling to get into the platform business.

And it is data that is both the enabler of this platform economy, when provided through APIs, and also the precious raw material that could be harvested from the ecosystem. Through data analytics it can be used to understand the nature and behaviour of customers. (API stands for Application Programme Interface and is the convenient way that computers stream information to each other online.)

Apigee presented a diagram of this modern world something along the following lines:

PaulMaltby graphic

It was an interesting observation that helped explained some of the business choices facing new tech companies, but how does it relate to government?

In my next post I’ll be talking about Government as a platform.


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  1. Comment by simonfj posted on

    Hi Paul,

    Really like the stuff you write and say. (al around the global traps)

    You really ought to ask Carrie, the GDS teams' editor (in my eyes) to include this one in her weekly bits of interest. I'm with you on the platform. So it's fun to see it so close, yet undiscovered.

    We have 55 blogs now whose time has come in being incorporated into a new learning environment/platform. Obviously, we wouldn't expect National government to be as progressed as Local. After all, it's easier turning a battleship than a cruiser. But at at least we have a well accepted starting point. So there's another platform that needs to be incorporated in the design criteria for a Groups.GOV.UK.

    I'll be interested to see what you come up with, so far as your layers of Major retailers, major departments - samo, samo. How about (from bottom to top) - Platform, policies, functionarios/developers, citizens/designers, lobbyists.

    Thought you may be interested in this one, as platforms are (often) just another way of talking about sharing the same services between different networks. Sometimes it's easier to view things from the top down.

  2. Comment by Suzanne Collins posted on

    Paul, I love reading your Posts and your Ideas. I really Feel Apple, Amazon and Google is helping so many people with there services and thats the reason they are Top of what they do.