Making a Living in Languages (Redux) part 6: Can’t Make a Killing From Platforms Without Killing the Community

Last time: “Platforms – The New Application-Centric Product Positioning,” in which I encouraged thinking about platforms communities rather than language technologies or standards.
Now: How does a single vendor create a platform community?

[This is an excerpt from a Lisp conference talk I gave in 2002.]

We might not want to create a new platform. If we can relate our software products to an existing platform like J2EE, then that’s certainly the way to go. Riding an existing community’s energy is much quicker than creating our own “chi”. Maybe we eventually expand our scope to the point where there is a separately recognizable platform.

A particular example is to go back to the embedded specialized language model. Paul Graham has some great stories of Viaweb doing this. ( You can be very successful creating applications that include languages that no one ever sees externally. It also works for “applications” that act as tools or libraries within an existing platform. One key to this is to make sure that all the publicly visible parts of your application or tool look exactly like a component in the established platform for the given application domain. For example, Paul made his Web store generator run as an ordinary Unix process and used the Unix file system for storage. No one could see it had a Lisp system inside. He rode the Unix-as-Web-application-server platform.

Developing our own platform from scratch can be prohibitively expensive. And if we charge too much for the common platform functionality, then we discourage community growth.

Hypothesis: “The cost of creating and promulgating an infrastructure platform is rarely recouped.”

Some companies have been lucky (or ruthless) enough to produce annuities from the licensing of their proprietary platform. Examples are MS Windows, or IBM System 360. But I think that in the long run, it is more common to not directly make back the development and promotion costs just from intellectual property ownership. I’m thinking about Sun and Java, AT&T and Unix, BBN and the Internet, and Xerox and everything else.

Suggestion: Reduce costs and grow community by offering platform as open source.

The idea is to reduce the platform to the minimum architecture that can be used to produce the results required for the intended class of application. This is the hardest part to get right, and the hardest to produce revenue on without killing the goose. These are the conditions in which Open Source is supposed to excel. It supposedly reduces development costs and increases reliability and performance. It also grows the community in a very direct way by involving other people in the platform’s success. Finally, open source platforms are a magnet for other developers to come and build more tools that enhance the value of the platform.

Unix, Gnu, Linux
Perl, Ruby

Note that commercial versions of the open platform may well be appropriate. Examples are Sun Solaris for Unix, and J2EE application servers such as IBM Websphere and BEA Weblogic. But the idea is still that at least pilot projects can be developed and deployed with zero licensing fees, and that there is a choice of platform suppliers for mission-critical commercial applications.

I want to be very clear that I am not suggesting that Lisp vendors should open source their traditional Lisp offerings. Franz has weathered many storms with their licensing strategies, and I don’t think they’ll gain anything by giving away Lisp. CMUCL has been available as open source for a long time, and it hasn’t lead to any mass adoption of Common Lisp. Instead, the idea here is to think in terms of platforms for a class of application, not in terms of languages. I’d like for people to think about the kinds of applications for which their language experience gives them useful insight. Then define a minimal open platform that can host those applications. That open platform is not necessarily going to be isomorphic to a Common Lisp top-level.

next: Give ‘Em What They Want.
Start of nine part series.

About Stearns

Howard Stearns works at High Fidelity, Inc., creating the metaverse. Mr. Stearns has a quarter century experience in systems engineering, applications consulting, and management of advanced software technologies. He was the technical lead of University of Wisconsin's Croquet project, an ambitious project convened by computing pioneer Alan Kay to transform collaboration through 3D graphics and real-time, persistent shared spaces. The CAD integration products Mr. Stearns created for expert system pioneer ICAD set the market standard through IPO and acquisition by Oracle. The embedded systems he wrote helped transform the industrial diamond market. In the early 2000s, Mr. Stearns was named Technology Strategist for Curl, the only startup founded by WWW pioneer Tim Berners-Lee. An expert on programming languages and operating systems, Mr. Stearns created the Eclipse commercial Common Lisp programming implementation. Mr. Stearns has two degrees from M.I.T., and has directed family businesses in early childhood education and publishing.


  1. The question, “How does a vendor create a platform community?” is arguably the most crucial question facing my employer, Laszlo Systems. I work on the free, open source platform, OpenLaszlo, and the company makes money by selling applications that run on, and support for users of, that platform. The premise that makes the company willing to sink so much money into the platform, which they give away, is that customers will not buy applications that run on platform X unless they are confident that platform X is going to continue to be around & well supported. Our community continues to grow, and we derive benefit from the community in terms of testing, mutual aid, evangelizing, and (some small amounts of) contribution to the platform.

    I personally would like to see (at least) a tenfold increase in adoption of our platform in 2007. Perhaps I’ll write a followup entry here about how we’re trying to make (or allow) that (to) happen.

    Had we not opened up our platform two years ago, we would not be in business today. Conversely, had Curl opened up (as founder Steve Ward wanted them to) Curl might rule the internet application space today instead of being a minor footnote.

    And finally, it’s interesting to compare Macromedia’s Flex/Apollo approach to OpenLaszlo’s. Macromedia’s MXML language started as basically a pure rip-off of Laszlo’s LZX. But they’re going in a different direction, selling tools and (software) servers. . .

  2. Looking back, I think I was misleading to suggest that OpenSource reduces all costs. I think it can reduce certain kinds of costs. But the trick is to engineer the platform scope and the benefit to you in the context of what you’re selling so that you can realize those cost benefits up front.

    The obvious core thing is that you need a market for <em>something</em> on your platform. Laszlo (and Curl) makes it much easier to create a certain kind of very cool Web app. But the market is still Web apps, where there are plenty of crummy platforms to use that are “good enough” for most purposes. I don’t think we’re dealing with a new-market disruptive situation here.

    I think it makes a lot of sense that Lazlo builds and sells applications. The platform is Laszlo’s secret-sauce that lets it build really cool stuff reliably and cheaply. (With half of all IT projects failing, being able to reliably turn out a certain kind of complex application is a pretty powerful thing.) If the amortized benefits to Laszlo for that purpose justify the cost, then Laszlo’s business model will work. If there’s not enough benefit, it won’t. The cool thing is that if there is enough benefit for Laszlo’s own application builders, than there will be enough benefit for others, and that forms your open-source platform community.

    Things get murky when we try to argue that the benefit is enough only when the cost of developing/using the platform is lower than it is now, but higher than what the cost will be when the platform is well established. Specifically, what if Lazslo Systems isn’t making enough money on Lazslo applications to completely fund whatever is necessary for OpenLaszlo? (Costs include the risk of the company or platform going away. You can measure it as a cost to the buyer, or the cost of sales for Laszlo applications.) The conventional “wisdom” is that with open source, the costs will eventually go down to the point that everything works out. However, I don’t believe the costs ever really go down. The expectations and support mechanisms will be established such that a certain cost structure is in place, and there will be a lot of forces at work that will keep that cost structure in place. (You might think, “But as the platform is accepted, the costs associated with risk will go down!” But that’s wrong. The risk manifests itself right now as a long and complex sales process for Laszlo consulting to be selected as an application builder. Lazslo Systems, Inc. will develop sales people with a certain attitude, a sales monitoring and development process, and a general corporate pitch that works for that long, complex, risky sales reality. As just one example, salesmen will be rewarded richly for a big sale, because they are so few and far between. Once the platform is established, those people, processes, attitudes and expectations will still be in place, and they won’t go away. So the parenthetical point here is that today’s <em>costs</em> for being a niche player will not go down after the platform itself moves out of the niche.)

    But there is a way to win. I’ll bet that there are is at least one kind of Web app for which the benefits of Laszlo do justify the costs right now. That’s all you need. You can’t ever be better for everyone unless you’re better for someone specifically. But if you are, then that drives everything.

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