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War of the platforms: Facebook, Apple, Android, Twitter.

For the first time in decades, the choice of what platform to build for is not obvious.

Back in the 80s and 90s, it was obvious: Build on Microsoft. Then from 2000 to 2008, the closest thing to a platform was Google, where developers would work with SEO and SEM tactics to get traffic. Then all of a sudden, the Facebook platform got big- really big. Then came mobile.

The last time this happened was in early 1980s
All of a sudden, you can actually pick and choose what platform to actually build upon. Weird. This is a historic event – the last time there were this many choices, we were choosing between Windows, OS/2, or the original Mac.

For those with deep pockets, of course you can build on all of them – yet if you’re an early startup, you really have to double down on one and go multi-platform as you pick up traction.

Evaluating platforms
To evalute which platform is best, here are some thoughts:

  • Which offers access to the most relevant users?
  • Which one is the most stable?
  • Which platform is most unlikely to build a competing app and try to replace yours?

Ultimately, I think distribution is where platforms really help. As Apple’s demonstrated, you can make developers learn a whole new programming language, a new technology stack, if you can give them access to millions of users. Contrast that to many generates of Google and Yahoo APIs which allowed for data access, but not distribution – much less useful. The biggest problem with Apple is that their leaderboard system is rapidly filling up with winners and it’s harder to break in.

Facebook is much more of a free-for-all, and new apps can break in, but they are pretty unstable and are constantly changing their platform. The plus side is that their constant changes introduce new windows of opportunity for an adventurous developer to jump in.

Twitter as a consumer product is so simple, there aren’t many marketing channels to even take advantage of. They don’t have an app store, they don’t have an apps page, and it’s hard to discover. Right now, as a platform Twitter’s not that great.

Android seems like a potentially great platform to develop for, but there’s so much opportunity in the iOS world that most developers have overlooked it. Perhaps it’ll turn into the contrarian bet and we’ll see some Android-first apps succeed. Of course, the fragmentation is a real problem, and there hasn’t been an existence proof of an Android-first app that’s had the same level of traction as, say, Rovio or Instagram.

More platforms upcoming?
Let’s also not count out Windows Mobile, or maybe even a resurgence in native applications as Microsoft and Apple build out their desktop app stores. There’s also interesting emerging companies like Pinterest or Dropbox, which may not be in the 100s of millions of users, but may quickly get there.

I predict that marketing channels will loosen up in the short-term
Lots of interesting choices here – there’s a ton of opportunity and I think we’ll see that the competition between platforms will lead to a loosening of distribution channels. Facebook will hopefully open up a bit more, and provide a bunch more traffic, rather than see all their social gaming developers sucked into mobile, for instance. Will be great to see.

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