This is era of the cloud platform, aka the re-platforming of the enterprise. Every vendor, whether old guard freshening up for the cloud, or new guard playing defense against the dark arts, has a cloud platform strategy with two purported goals: offer value to customers and confer an easy way for partners to make up for the lost revenue implicit in the cloud’s ability to sop up a lot of low-hanging fruit previously left for partners to pick.
There’s more than a whiff of irony contained in the fact that re-platforming is an essential part of moving to a cloud model that theoretically eschews software. “No software” marketing slogans aside, it takes a lot of software to run an enterprise in the cloud, and adopting and making use of that software – as in your favorite vendor’s cloud platform – is neither simple nor cheap.
This creates an important new imperative for vendors to define the value of their nascent cloud platforms differently than in the past. This time, it’s not about technology, it’s about something different: customer and partner experiences matter more than ever, and opening up to a new form of partner engagement is imperative. For some companies, that’s a no-brainer. For others, a brain transplant might be in order.
So bear with me while I make the case that, at the end of the day, re-platforming is about partner opportunities first and foremost. And the winner in the race to re-platform will be the vendor/contender that makes it so simple to sign on, become a partner, build a cool new product, and then sell it through a digital store that partners will falling over themselves to get on board. Everyone with an iPhone or iPad knows what I mean.
While this is the nth re-platforming in my career, this era’s re-platforming is quite distinct from the earlier lot: client/server computing, the Internet, the Y2K hoax, and the circa 2000 e-commerce hustle bustle, to name the biggest in recent memory. In each one of these previous re-platformings, the role of the platform was to enable new technology models to emerge that, with a little spit and polish, might actually be made to serve emerging business models one day – once businesses caught up and got around to understanding the magnitude of the change that was in the air.
So while waiting for business to get on board, the technological justifications for re-platforming ruled. While serving the needs of the business was supposedly the main objective, the new platforms engendered yet another technology-first race, and while there were unintended benefits for some – client/server and Y2K enabled much need technology upgrades — the flotsam and jetsam that washed up in the aftermath of the dotcom bust and early Internet re-platformings were testimony to the problems inherent in trying to solve a business problem with a technology-first solution.
To be sure, the cloud platform of today is also at the center of an effort to enable new technology models in the service of business, and there are plenty of proponents who argue that this is also mostly about technology. I contend that’s a false and potentially fatal assumption: the platforms of today are connected much more closely to new business models than ever before – so close as to be almost indistinguishable.
The key to that connection is people.
Unlike previous attempts at re-platforming, the new cloud business cases and patterns of behavior that enable them are already well-established: This time around, the drive to re-platform for the cloud is coming in the midst of a massive business transformation movement that is all about how people – customers, employees, partners, consumers… in a nutshell, everyone – put technology to use for their personal use, at work and at home.
Importantly, these use cases are already happening – they’re not theoretical in the least. The horse is out of the barn, the trick is to harness it and put it to productive use.
The blending of work and home is what’s really shaking things up, not because we all want to work from home, but, to repeat a well-known trope, because the user experience we have at home with our intelligent devices has completely outpaced our experiences at work. This is not, to repeat a much less well-known trope, just a matter of grafting on new user experiences driven by mobility, touch, and voice interaction. More important is that we are acting differently – buying, selling, communicating, showing and telling – in ways that are fundamentally new as well. The personal processes of the “consumerized business user”, have changed, and will continue to change, at an ever-increasing pace.
In fact, the new user experiences are only the tip of the iceberg – it’s what’s happening behind the scenes in the back office that’s actually the most important.
The need to fill out the part of the iceberg that’s underwater is driving business process change at an unprecedented pace, which in turn is driving the new platform imperative. The business disruption that is now a core part of trends like business transformation and digital transformation started in the home: instead of going to the store to rent videos, we stayed home, and with a vastly superior user experience (faster, better, cheaper, more choice) we disrupted Blockbuster. We did the same with books, and disrupted Borders. And now we’re doing it again with Uber and Lyft.
In every case, the user experience was awesome, but what was really amazing was the backend – it’s dead simple to create a button and have it say Buy now with 1-Click, it’s a whole ‘nuther thing to turn that click into the starting point of a process that automatically invoices, pulls, packs, ships, tracks, and delivers in 48 hours or less.
Amazon and others have highlighted that the business disruption of today isn’t theoretical, or hypothetical, or just around the corner the way it was at the dawn of the re-platforming movements of the past. It’s real, it’s happening, the tide is shifting, fear is in the air – feel free to pick the business disruption platitude you prefer, only bear in mind that in this case, to slaughter a famous line by the Bard himself, platitude is prologue. If you’re not scared, you’re not paying attention.
This makes the platform doubly important as a place for a vendor to not just lock in customers for a generation (the cynical viewpoint) but also provide them with important new capabilities (the counter-cynical view). These new capabilities need to be available to a vastly expanded user base, take advantage of the aforementioned new experiences, and leverage the plastic fantastic resources of the cloud.
But, and here’s really the crux of the problem, the truth is that no vendor can provide everything needed to leverage the value of re-platforming. Did I mention it’s not cheap and there’s a lot of software involved? With a non-trivial level of cost and complexity involved, if all a vendor is doing by re-platforming is enabling the same old enterprise stuff in a faster cloud, it’s the business transformation equivalent of putting a turbocharger on a hearse: in the end, you’ll still be dead, the only difference is that you got to the funeral faster.
Assuming a faster ride to the end of the line isn’t a good thing, if a platform vendor can’t actually provide everything needed to cost-justify its platform, particularly the shiny new things customers need to fend off disruption and get in the mood to disrupt the next guy, then something else is needed. That something is obvious and acknowledged by all, but, to misquote the Bard again, its successful application is more honored in the breach than the observance.
What I’m talking about is a vibrant, well-supported, happy ecosystem of partners dedicated to filling out the vendor’s existing offerings, taking on the last mile of functionality for specific industries, geographies, new use cases and the like that leverage the cloud vendors’ applications and platform, and then making the magic happen for the vendor’s newly re-platformed customers.
That ecosystem – from startups to OEM partners (though the shift has to be more towards the left than the right of that continuum) – needs access to five basic ingredients that define cloud platform success for them and their customers. (And listen up, platform vendors – you’re third in line after customers and partners in the Maslow Hierarchy of Cloud Platform Needs. Your personal self-actualization only comes after customers and partners, not before. Don’t make me repeat it – vendors who create partner programs and put their needs first and foremost… grrrr.)
Back to those five ingredients for an ecosystem worthy of a re-replatforming strategy. This list is for you, cloud platform vendors looking for success in the enterprise. And customers, when you’re looking at a new platform, think about whether the vendor you’re talking to has bothered to include these five ingredients:
1) Ready access for partners to your customer base. Platform vendors have the customers, partners have that last mile solution, go ye forth, multiply, and be fruitful.
2) A single point of entry for the partnering efforts. Too many vendor platforms force their nascent partners to play whack-a-mole with the vendors’ partnering efforts – first talk to these guys, then those guys, then get someone else’s approval, then enter the certification program, pay your way, and then, wait for the next re-org and start the process all over. (Yeh, you, I’m talking about you.) The problem is that whack-a-mole can quickly turn into a death march, which in turn means that the platform strategy will fail for lack of innovative partners – who the hell wants to sign on to a death march when there are warm, fuzzy embraces to be had elsewhere.
3) Great co-marketing. You need to help everyone – your customers and your partners – understand why vendor+platform+partner product is a win/win/win. This has to be a real discussion about real business value – not more squishy proclamations about “everything changes for the better, trust us” or “now your IT is even less complex” or “the very best damn platform for the (insert TLA) market “. You gotta get really real – no more platitudes, prologues though they may be. Customers need facts, data, and reality, not marketing fog.
4) A great development environment that favors the developer, not the vendor’s internal political choices and not-invented-here nonsense. This includes lots of tools and lots of options for using standards: in a nutshell, your platform has to be the most welcoming of all, the choice of dev environment should never be an obstacle. And prospective partners that started developing before they decided your platform would be a good place to be shouldn’t have to start by porting their product to the vendor’s non-open platform. See “death march” above.
5) Last but really first among equals: A great commercial experience that makes it simple (can I say insanely simple and not sound too much like a Steve Jobs fanboy?) for partners to sell their wares online and customers to buy them. One-click a la Amazon or the Apple Store’s ease of use may not be possible for every partner product, but that should be the goal. Or getting numbers 1-4 right won’t matter in the least.
If you’re thinking my list is obvious, you’re right – sometimes the best you can do for someone is remind them of the obvious. It’s my stock in trade as a consultant in fact. The sun rises in the east, birds fly south for the winter, and there are five basic ingredients for a successful ecosystem: none of this is hard to figure out, what’s hard is to get it done. And as far as I can tell no vendor is doing a great job of all five.
Of the above criteria, I think it’s the last one that will be the best measure of success: How well a cloud vendor builds and maintains a strong ecosystem will very quickly become one of the main differentiators between clouds. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: if the vendor does things right, the partner ecosystem will come. Plain and simple, no?
We shall see. I’ve watched plain and simple lose to complex and convoluted time and time again. As my friend Dave Brousell likes to say, every big company has its meat grinder, and whatever quality of meat goes in, by the time the grinding is done it’s pretty much all ground beef. Getting rid of the meat grinder is harder than it sounds, and at times no amount of good intentions can overcome the institutional inertia to turn innovation into hash.
Unless…. Vendors have to fix their re-platforming strategies to fit into the needs of customers and partners, and do it now. A great UX without new underlying processes, great new processes without a mass of great partners, a mass of great partners without a great digital store. Getting ready for digital transformation is like buying one of those Russian matryoshka dolls and trying to figure out, as you open up one doll only to find another, which doll is actually the one that matters. The answer is obvious – all of them. Or none of them. In which case, don’t bother buying the doll in the first place.
Which is it going to be?