It’s a Platform, He Kept Saying
by Leslie Ellis // February 28 2011
Last week, over a span of two briefings and four interviews, one word came up over and over and over. Twenty eight times, to be specific.
Maybe this one’s popping up with unsettling regularity in your world, too: Platform. Conversationally, it emerges like this (from last week’s batch of notes):
“You have to have it across multiple platforms, to get the scale you need.”
“We’re going to pre-integrate from APIs from other platforms.”
“It’s a platform abstraction layer.”
What does that mean?
“Platform” elicits the same kind of glaze-over as “edge,” as in “the edge of the network.” The definition depends on who’s talking. (Pretty sure my head will explode upon first mention of “the edge of the platform.”)
So let’s start in the tactile world. Here, in the physical, non-digital world, a platform is a purpose-built, elevated structure, for the purpose of displaying something to an audience.
In the digital world, platforms are much more amorphous. Everyone has one.
Depending on a person’s knowledge precinct, a platform might be a grouping of software products. Or a reference to particular groupings of stuff – gadgets plumbed for Android, encoders that ingest a stream of video then spit it out in 20 different formats, or servers that perform a particular function (“our VOD platform,” “the nationwide EBIF platform.”)
In cable, “platform” tends to be a sweeping reference to every back-office function that used to be associated with specific, “silo’ed” services, but are now linked to work together, with the formerly proprietary stuff weeded out.
Getting your head around “platform” makes more sense when viewed with historical context: Cable grew town by town, franchise by franchise. Gear varied, one system to the next. Digital video arrived with its own set of vendors and techniques. Broadband, while digital, grew up with a different set of vendors and techniques. Likewise for billing systems, service activation, device provisioning.
Without “platforms,” adding a new feature to any service meant phoning one of four billing providers, putting the feature on their development list – then waiting 18 months. It meant working within “the duopoly” of set-top conditional access systems, to move it through that twist of secured instructions.
Ultimately, platforms represent the Big Unification that will get new services and apps to market, much more swiftly. They’re the software bridges that span all of the decisions made before operator and vendor consolidation.
And as “platforms” continue to inch into every nook and cranny of the cable business, my hope is that they become the essence of a sign on the wall of Time Warner Cable’s Sherisse Hawkins, that reads “ISJW” – for “It Should Just Work.”
For now, though, and like “edge,” when you come upon “platform,” it’s probably best to halt the conversation to ask for that person’s definition.
This column originally appeared in the Platforms section (no really) of Multichannel News.