How good is your ecosystem?


Back in the late 1970s, IBM reigned nearly supreme in the computer industry. It had seen off the BUNCH (Burroughs, Univac, NCR, Control Data and Honeywell), its competitors in the early mainframe days. New players had sought footholds in the midrange and emerging microcomputer spaces, but it was expected that the process of leveraging increasing returns from increasing share that had worked before would work again.

Meanwhile, at the margins of the mainframe business, companies were emerging to use the ecology created by standardization around IBM. Manufacturers of plug-compatible tape drives, disk drives and even replacement processors were starting up and shipping their first products, competing on price. Other companies were supplying software that filled gaps in IBM’s offerings, starting the whole software industry as we know it today.

As an IBMer in the late 1970s, I dared to ask my managers about this burgeoning competition based on an ecosystem rather than by demanding that purchasers junk everything they owned and start again (the traditional computing model). The question was laughed away: “we’re supreme; no one can compete with us”.

I left shortly thereafter, on the grounds that the world was changing and ignorance and laughing the problem off wouldn’t work. (It took until 1992 for IBM to be forced to admit that it wasn’t the world they were used to.)

Today almost every business works in an ecosystem of complementary and replacement suppliers. Companies are often simultaneously partners and competitors. Understanding the risks and potentials of your career with a firm, or of the business itself, begins with understanding the ecosystem it works within.

This matters far more than does customer satisfaction, or perceived lock-ins.

The previous two posts have talked about the smartphone market, and this point can be seen there clearly.

What matters in the smartphone market — whether or not your position as someone whose income derives from a manufacturer in it, say — is the ecosystem built around you.

Apple is routinely criticized for its “closed garden” approach. Apps have to be procured from the Apple-run App Store. If you’re a developer, you must submit your product to Apple for approval. They can withhold that — and do.

But look at what it means to Apple’s customers: every product in the App Store is confirmed to work on the device you own, and to work as expected with no work required on your part to configure it. That same “closed garden” that seemed so limiting actually enhances the most important thing for a developer: being paid.

Unsurprisingly, users of the Apple ecosystem are the ones most likely to buy an app rather than simply use free ones: their risk on the purchase has been dramatically lowered.

Likewise, Apple’s tight control over hardware and system software means the ecosystem of developers have a very limited number of targets to work with and test. Apple’s tight control over carriers (for the iPhone and iPad products) means as well that system software updates are not held hostage to the carriers, as other vendors experience. Therefore, most Apple customers run current software, giving developers opportunity.

The Android market is larger, but fragmented into a multiplicity of device architectures, manufacturer changes to the base Android world, and carrier restrictions. So, if you were an HTC employee, for instance, you’d have to look at how HTC’s piece of the overall picture is being changed.

A player like RIM, with its Blackberry product, is in the same position IBM was as the 1980s drew to a close: still resisting (in many ways) the notion of having to be an ecosystem player (for all the attempts to deliver developers to the platform now going on). Still building incompatible products requiring developers to build for multiple fragmented targets.

A comparison of personal risks and rewards would suggest that that would make for a more risk-laden future than a Samsung within the Android space — and a highly risky future relative to Apple’s ecosystem.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that leadership lost is irretrievable. It does mean that the game that got you there isn’t the one that keeps you there. It also probably means that a firm where leadership remains locked into a way of seeing the market, and whose Board is subservient to that leadership, is likely rolling the dice on your future.

That’s a bit of personal due diligence you owe it to yourself to understand — and act upon.

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