The power of the platform

What is the key to allowing large companies to move fast? Build great platforms. I first heard this insight being persausively argued in Mark Zuckerberg’s interview with John Battelle and Tim O’Reilly at Web 2.0 in 2010 – an age ago in internet time. 

In this clip he tells how he urges his people to “be fast and be bold”. He then talks about what it means to be agile. While small start-ups can do it easily, the larger you get the harder it is to move fast. But, he says, people can move quickly on top of a robust platform built on “solid abstractions”. 

I also remember being impressed with the speed that Yahoo! teams were able to build strong features on the back of solid APIs to things like single sign-on, maps and Flickr photos. Because the APIs are easily internally available, teams are able to function on the innovation rather than the plumbing.

Amazon is perhaps the supreme example of a company build on the power of the platform. Jeff Bezos has built a platform which can quickly turn its hand to selling just about anything. There was an accidental post by a Google engineer Steve Yegge which famously demonstrated the pain it took getting there, but there is no doubt that the platform approach is one of the main underpinnings of Amazon’s huge success. That same post argued that Google was, incidentally, some way away from the ideal which illustrates eloquently just how hard it is to get it right. 

Now on WordPress

I’ve spent the day moving my site from Blogger to WordPress, hosted on GoDaddy. Apart from a little glitch when I corrupted a php file on an early template and had to reinstall, it all went remarkably smoothly. And I’m really impressed with the migration tools and also the huge range of excellent templates. So far, so good…..

Cambridge’s Area 51?

Something very weird happens each time I drive up a particular stretch of the M11/A14. My car’s radar system goes off line.

This is the system which enables my car to spot approaching danger from overtaking cars, to warn about obstacles in front of the car (and even brake) and to automatically adjust the car’s speed when driving with cruise control on.

The systems shuts down just after the Imperial War Museum at Duxford on the way north and comes on again around Bar Hill on the A14. In the opposite direction the same thing happens at the same spots.

I’ve Googled to see if others have the same problem but come up with nothing. So I decided to plot this on a map and see what I could come up with. Making the assumption that the interference was not geographical, but was likely transmitted, I assumed that whatever was causing the failure was transmitting from the centre of a circle who’s circumference bisected both points (see map). There are obviously two circles which fit the bill – the centre of one is in the middle of a very unpopulated area of farmland; the centre of the other falls close to Cherry Hinton, therefore the likelier candidate.

Looking at the map closely around Cherry Hinton there are few things which stand out. Two that do would seem to be ARM – the mobile chip maker, and Cambridge Airport.

Whatever is causing the outage it does make me glad my car isn’t self-driving….

UPDATE…. One of my US journalist friends Stephen Trimble suggested my analogy was not quite correct and provided a possible explanation: “Several major US and Five Eyes intelligence installations are in that neighborhood. Area 51 is probably not the best comparison, since that’s basically just a remote airfield. But it may be more like Fort Meade, the headquarters of the NSA.”

Invisible Carbon Dioxide

Two stories in the press today illustrate magnificently the size of the mountain we still have to climb to climate change awareness, let alone decisive action. First the FT writes about the resurgence of interest in coal in the UK by Australian investors, then the Guardian writes about the Labour Party’s commitment to tighten up on the rules around fracking.

Despite the fact that both newspapers regularly report on climate change findings it’s as if the issue didn’t exist as far as these two stories are concerned. As usual neither mentioned the elephant in the room – that developing more sources of carbon may be unwise (not to say insane) when there are already considerable reserves on the energy companies’ books which are unburnable if the 2degC warming limit which world leaders are committed to is going to be remotely achievable.

The decision to invest in either coal or fracking is either bad or mad. Either the world’s leaders do nothing and the investments reap rewards now at the expense of huge disruption later (PDF) or those leaders are shocked into taking practical steps to limit carbon significantly in which case the value of those investments will likely collapse.

Either way, it’s not an investment decision to be proud of.

Reappraising my blog

I’m reappraising my blog. When I first started blogging on Thursday August 11th, 2005 the world was a very different place. I started initially as a living example of how easy blogging was during an RBI Editor’s Conference. It did an excellent job. So much so, that I kept blogging regularly to the largely internal RBI editorial audience and the blog evolved from there.

In the beginning I used the blog to point to things on the web which I felt would be important for journalists in a media company to know. I found these either through searches or, more often than not, through my newsreader which was consuming the feeds from lots and lots of blogs across the world.

But that function has long since been usurped by Twitter and Facebook. Google canned Google Reader at the beginning of 2003 and so I, like many, moved to Feedly.  However, I find I rarely look at my newsreader any more. And mostly I simply re-tweet a link to something that has caught my eye. And practically every site makes it really easy to do this through “Tweet This” buttons.

Although my blog evolved over the years to include many longer and, I like to think, more thoughtful posts, the time I spent keeping it up diminished as the alternatives proliferated. I am now on Facebook, Twitter and, half-heartedly, Google+.

Recently, however, I’ve started to rethink, partly inspired an excellent presentation which Aral Balkan gave at the RSA (and again – more or less – at Thinking Digital). Called “Free is a Lie”, the premise is that the business model of free is leading to “digital feudalism” as we give away more and more of our privacy in return for “free” services. He argues passionately for well designed, independent tools (phones, social networks, messaging systems) which can compete with Google and Facebook but which fundamentally respect the privacy of the individual.

One of my early journalist colleagues got in touch recently to encourage me to sign up to her blog Notes On A Spanish Valley. It was really nice to see a blog being used as it used to be – a mixture of pictures from the location, thoughts on life, even recipes – some of which I have cooked and which have joined the repertoire. She could have done this through Facebook, but somehow all mixed up together in her own style on the blog she designed it is much more powerful and personal.

Robert Scoble, one of the pioneers of blogging, recently announced he had given up blogging and moved completely to social media. I realised that I was unintentionally sliding down that same path.

And I realised that I didn’t want to.

So, I’ve decided to try to come back to my blog with more persistence. And I’ve decided to migrate it from Blogger where it’s been since the beginning and move onto the WordPress platform. The usual reason people do this is for the increased flexibility of WP. For me, though, it is more because Blogger is firmly part of Google and I have to sign in with by ubiquitous Google username and password to use it. Aral Balkan’s talk has make me wary of this, so this is my first small step away from the big platforms.

If I make the move smoothly, nothing should change. If not, well, time will tell!