Word To The Wise Devs: Don't Compete With Platforms

Last night I read Loic LeMeur’s article about how his company wasn’t f*cked by Twitter and I can’t help but feel like you’re listening to somebody who’s in denial. The problem is not that Seesmic doesn’t have a brand built, but instead that if the company doesn’t pivot at this critical juncture, they’ll end up screwing themselves over. The reason is that applications competing with platforms is always a losing game.

The Losing Game Of Competing With Platforms

Remember Word Perfect? That application practically created the word processing revolution (with Lotus Notes) on PCs until another application came along: Microsoft Word. Within years the application all but disappeared. It wasn’t a bad business, as it made a lot of money, but it wasn’t a sustainable one. Take another example in the social platform space: the Facebook application SuperPoke. On March 19, 2009, the application had over 7.7 million monthly active users. One year later it has just over 1 million.

Was it a bad business? Not at all! Slide made plenty of money from running ads on the application but unfortunately it isn’t an application that will last for ever as it was essentially just filling holes. Slide has since pivoted to becoming a game developer, launching “Top Fish”, “SuperPocus”, “Rock Riot”, and other game titles (many of which have failed interestingly enough).

While each pivot within a business may not work, failing to pivot will get you run over. That’s exactly what Seesmic appears to be on the path to. If they stay on this path they will ultimately end up in the deadpool just like every other app developer who didn’t make rapid adjustments to the company’s path.

Applications Must Be Platform Independent

Seesmic proves to be another interesting case study in regards to being platform independent (and what not to do). The company doesn’t have an iPhone application, yet they claim that they want to be the “Switzerland of the social web”. I want to access my social information wherever I am, not only on my desktop, and while Seesmic has a web client, they aren’t making things easier for me. While Loic Le Meur has stated that the company will expand their services to other platforms like the iPhone, they’re running in right as Twitter is entering the space: it’s suicide.

That’s why Tweetdeck and Tweetie already both work well, in that I can use them when I’m at home on my computer, or on the go on my phone. However there’s a bigger problem facing Seesmic aside from just beginning to expand their reach: they don’t have the “Twitter” name in their brand. While the application could potentially reach millions of people, the average user is going to search for “Twitter” when they search for applications as shown by Evan Williams at the Chirp conference earlier this week.

Create Content Or Create New Ways To Filter And Interpret It

None of the platform owners will single handedly have control over the distribution of content, but what we’re rapidly seeing is Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Google, and a few others becoming the “major networks” of the social web. For application developers to create solutions for consuming information is a great short-term model to gain adoption, but in the long-run, developers need to develop the content (games, etc), or create new ways to filter and interpret it (analytics services, aggregators, etc).

Applications will then be able to plug in to any of the distribution points of the platforms. It’s an awkward time because developers are building on top of platforms while the foundation of the social web is still being laid down. It’s about as useful as building a store in a large neighborhood where development is about to happen. You know that new roads are being built and you know that a mall and even a major transportation hub is being built, but if you put millions of dollars into a shopping center and eventually find out that the transit hub is on the other side of town, you’ll end up burned because you over developed.

Perhaps that analogy is a bit of a stretch but keeping lean, agile, and adapting as the large social web behemoths lay the groundwork will help developers stay on top and increase the odds that once all the pipelines have been created, they’ll be a front runner. For Sessmic, it’s time for another pivot, otherwise they’ll end up just like the thousands of applications on Facebook that have disappeared over the past two years.

If you happen to be a developer and want to know what to build, take a look at Fred Wilson’s recent post discussing the numerous “hole filler” applications and where the opportunities exist.