Consumers program too: How BricaBox is a platforms for products / by Nate Westheimer

Suggested Reading:
A few weeks ago, I came out and said that that "
BricaBox is a Platform," after Andrew Parker wrote a post warning against the "Dark side of platform development." On Friday, I promised to follow up on my statement that BricaBox is like Bug Labs' product, BUG. Then, on Saturday, Fred Wilson wrote a post about "When a Product Becomes a Platform," which was followed by Marc Andreessen's equally provocative post, "Three kinds of platforms you meet on the Internet."

From the articles listed above, there are two quotes you should have fresh in your mind, before I make my point:

From Fred Wilson:

"...the best products become platforms at some point. And things that start out as platforms have a hard time becoming products."

And from Marc Andreessen:

A "platform" is a system that can be programmed and therefore customized by outside developers -- users -- and in that way, adapted to countless needs and niches... [but] whenever anyone uses the word "platform", ask: "Can it be programmed?" Specifically, with software code provided by the user? If not, it's not a platform...

My problem with the current analysis is highlighted by Fred and Marc's computer-programmer-centric perception of platforms and products. They miss an entire type of platform: those utilized by "the consumer" to create products for her own "countless needs and niches."

The fact is that "programming" doesn't just mean "code," and products can be built by platforms, not just on them.

The fact is, platforms create products too.

Let's step outside the land of Internets for a few quick example:

Example: Cold Stone Creamery.
Cold Stone has created a wildly successful platform for "Ice Cream Creations." You walk into a store for ice cream and you can walk out with literally "countless needs and niches" fulfilled (seriously: there are 48 ice cream flavors, 10 candy mix-ins, 4 nut mix-ins, 10 fruit mix-ins, 4 cakes & cookies, and 6 "other" mix-ins, including my personal favorite: Cinnamon. Oh, there are also 3 sizes. How is this not a platform for people to program their ice cream needs? At its heart, isn't programming an art of putting commands into a system and receiving an output? I'd said Cold Stone is a pretty yummy platform!

And so, this brings me to platforms like BricaBox and BUG -- both of which take their nod from blogging platforms, which we've seen power forms of communication and expression, such as podcasting to Post Secret.

But BricaBox and BUG go further than blogs, which provide "just" a blank canvas, because they are based around a modular approach to processing, organizing, displaying, and mashing-up data.

On BricaBox, for example, a customer can fulfill near endless combinations of web publishing niches and needs, even though code-level development isn't yet open to developers (don't worry "Level 1" and "Level 2" fans, it will be as soon a we can support the community). On a BUG, you may only have 4 modules available now, but the possibilities are still endless in terms of number of different products the platform allows you to create.

Think about location-based applications on both BricaBox and BUG (which, if you've heard me pitch, are my favorite applications to talk about). On BricaBox you could create a website to review all your favorite restaurants, pulling in outside review data, parking data, and mapping data; but you can also create a website to organize a home buying search with your family, pulling in demographic data, local political information, hyperlocal news, and nearby restaurant reviews. These are two very different applications -- products, if you will -- born from the same platform.

On the BUG, you (or USV's Brad Burnham) can create a camera which records GPS coordinates with video and saves data according to his preference; or, you can an actual "Black Box," using the accelerometer, GPS and the camera. Again, one play application and one work application: same set of parts, same factory, different implementation.

Aside from function, I should mention presentation, especially because BricaBox is a web-based platform. So, while on BricaBox one person may use location-based data as a part of their BricaBox, she could still highlight other data (like her tags) as the primary way of interacting with the website. The examples go on and on...

To conclude, I think the platforms Marc glamorizes are platforms for platforms' sake, and we think it's time for platforms to be for products' sake. On Fred's point, products which try to be platforms turn out to be platforms for features' sake (these are plug-ins on one product). While this model was revolutionary 4 years ago, and has powered much of what's "cool" now, we think new approach is what's revolutionary today.

Lastly, I want to add a point which Andrew Parker told me. "Platforms are great," he said, "if they can make killer products." This is a very fair and useful point, mostly because those of us focused on the beauty of a platform which can do all these amazing things can easily lose focus of the "killer" use-cases.

I can't speak to BUG's strategy here, but for us, we intend on focusing on real, individual customers to develop killer uses with us, for them. Just the other day I was in a meeting and folks decided that what we "really needed" in New York was comprehensive directory of tech organization and other interested parties. "Should we use a wiki?" somebody asked, prompting concerns from one corner. "Should we build a new site?", piped-up another, though most thought that also seemed like a poor idea.

So there we were, and it dawned on me, we were in a clear situation where the best publishing solution for the directory really was BricaBox - no joke. Could we have predicted that a local group would have found a "killer use" is a directory with a map mash-up, calendar mash-up, and alexa mash-up? Not really. It's our platform, but their product.

And so one by one we talk to people, introduce the platform, find places where our platform can power better websites, and get people to say, "Hey, I have a killer use for this platform: it's my product."