There’s a New Platform/Content Paradigm in Town

Every technology platform from the first one – Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press in the 15th century – has been fed by content. Newspapers, the phonograph, radio, television, the audiocassette, the personal computer, the VCR, the CD, DVD/Blu-ray, the Internet, the portable music player, the smartphone and the tablet have been established, judged and maintained by the strength of the content cooked for them.

As platform/content partnerships mature, the content evolves or morphs from mere form/format transfers from the old platform to form/formats better suited to the new platform. Like people who need food, platforms themselves change and mature, but paradoxically remain both dominant yet dependent on content to sustain them.

But this dominant platform-sustenance content food chain is beginning to mutate. Established platform/content ecosystems are beginning to wither, replaced by a wholly new unrecognizable arrangement.

The change agent of this platform/content paradigm mutation has been the smartphone. Developed to combine a number of established platforms, this platform/content chameleon has instead established itself as an incubator for entirely new functions and services, including mobile payments, smart home control/security and mobile health. And these new services have begun to outgrow their incubator, and the whole platform/content paradigm in general.

In a case of the tail wagging the dog, these new services are instead prompting the development of delivery platforms rather than the traditional other way around. Thanks to new wireless technologies such as low energy/smart Bluetooth and Near Field Communications (NFC), fitness bands, bio/wearable sensors, smart home hubs, home security cameras and smart watches have become subservient platforms to support delivery of these new dominant “content” services.

Apple Watch is perhaps the poster child for this new services-centric paradigm. As we pointed out last month in this space, Apple Watch was designed to be a disrupter platform, but may simply be instead just one more service delivery point.

Perhaps the best illustration of this tail-wagging-the-dog paradigm is the new Amazon Echo, due to go on general sale on July 19 for $179.99. Echo is a cylindrical Bluetooth/Wi-Fi speaker combined with a Siri-like voice-activated personal assistant – the logical fulfillment of the ideal of the Butler-in-a-Box from the mid-1980s. But after a couple of weeks of futzing with it (I ordered mine back in January), it’s easy to see Echo’s possibilities.

At Echo’s heart is Amazon’s cloud-based Alexa voice-command intelligence. Alexa isn’t very smart at the moment – she’s capable of answering only straight-forward, single-fact questions and isn’t capable of the kind of on-screen referrals Siri can provide on an iOS device (although she can refer you to an Amazon Fire phone or tablet). But that’s because Alexa is still a baby, filled with an infant’s unlimited precocious potential.

While Amazon is setting up Echo as a traditional platform for which developers will create apps (it’s giving away Alexa’s SDK), in reality it will simply be one more method for consumers to access these services. Even Amazon recognizes the inherent subservient nature of Alexa – it’s giving away her voice-responsive capabilities for makers of other smart home products to embed in their wares.

But despite their shiny new coolness, Echo and the Apple Watch are just two of a growing number of ways to deliver these platform services. Both Echo and the Apple Watch enable simple e-commerce – Watch through Apple Pay and Alexa by enabling the compilation of shopping lists and her ability to quickly process orders of already purchased items simply by asking. But American Express just announced mobile payment capabilities for the Jawbone UP4, which perhaps signals the beginning of the mobile payment device avalanche.

Out of its box, Echo can locate Philips Hue, Belkin WeMo and Wink smart lighting products to command via voice. Since support for Wink-enabled lighting products was added just last week, I have to assume other smart home platform suppliers and additional smart home product support will be added over time.

Similarly Apple Watch will become the voice-controllable control center for smart home products compliant with the company’s iOS-based HomeKit framework, the first products of which are just starting to appear. HomeKit-compatible devices will likely be wrist controllable with the watchOS 2 update coming this fall.

It’s clear Echo and Apple Watch are merely the first wave of devices expected to support these new service platforms. It’s unfortunate that Echo and Apple Watch can’t be combined to create a dynamic home-and-away pair, although I’ll bet Echo gets a wearable device sibling at some point. While the platform/content paradigm may be fading, OS silos unfortunately remain.