Online Ecosystems

Every online service has to think about how to attract users and to create an ecosystem. The best strategy to grow a user base is to attach to an existing ecosystem, i.e. build your service on top of a popular hardware, software or content platform. Once a new service has been established it can expand its own ecosystem to maintain growth.

There is a broad spectrum of ecosystems online: search (Google and Bing), social (Facebook and Twitter), mobile (iOS or Android), games (Apple Game Center or some hardware consoles) to name only a few.

Search

SEO/SEM companies that provide services to optimize the value of algorithmic and paid link dominate the ecosystems of search engines. This includes data feed aggregators that target verticals such as shopping or local.

Search engines have become the access gate to content on the web but none of the players has developed a vibrant developer ecosystem for value-added apps. Surprisingly this strategy has moved unchallenged into the mobile world.

Both Bing and Google have efforts in place to make APIs available to startups to develop innovative solutions on their respective platforms using data amassed in their indexes. However without a strategy of how value is created by third-party apps it is hard to see how the current situation changes.

Currently the only bet to leverage search is to publish links to web pages. Content engages users to join the service or in case of mobile to install the app. In my time at Bing we did develop an innovative ecosystem of 3rd party search apps that was never productized. Opening the search experience to apps developed by 3rd-parties is challenging and I would hold my breath that we see it happening.

Social

As part of davai.com we developed an innovative way to generate merchandizing apps that created living product stories to reach customers on Facebook and Twitter.

Facebook is an attractive ecosystem to attach to because of its large number of users. The Facebook APIs especially Facebook connect are stable and documented well but complex and require significant investment as well as a good API library.

Personalized apps and games that are developed with networked users in mind are benefit the most from Facebook’s ecosystem. However there are no low hanging fruit anymore with 9 million apps competing for attention and Facebook cracking down on apps that it believes exploit its ecosystem.

While Facebook has opened its walled garden Twitter has gone the other direction and pretty much locked down its ecosystem. At the beginning of Twitter its ecosystem has been phenomenal. Innovative clients and platform extensions popped up everywhere to fill in gaps that weren’t addressed by Twitter and its focus on simplicity.

Twitter initially looked like a great place to build a social commerce engine that would automate encounters between consumers and advertises. In our approach we used structured activities to overcome the noisiness of the twitter stream and allow users to self-identify their brand or product affinity. Scoring and clustering using the implicit and explicit social graph would identify the audience that could be targeted by advertisers.

The challenge to keep heterogeneous clients in lockstep with an evolving platform and the push to monetize its service make Twitter’s strategy shift understandable. Twitter has introduced structure into its stream which make its service much more useful similar to our approach, but by making its developer ecosystem less attractive it is becoming a centralized content broadcast service mainly betting on its own ability to innovate.

Mobile

On mobile, iOS is still the ecosystem to bet on, because of its popularity, i.e. “it came to iOS first,” or “it’s iOS-only”. The ecosystem is unique with its explosive growth, its combination of innovative design and devices features and the fact that people are willing and have been trained to pay for apps.

The challenge of Apple’s ecosystem is app discovery, especially for apps that charge more than $0.99 making a successful launch hard to predict. Apple also has a very strict and time-consuming approval process for its app store adding to the unpredictability of the process for an app developer.

Android is open and developer friendly and, if a cross-platform development environment is used, the more efficient platform to develop against. The “openness” however, i.e. the ability of hardware manufacturers to customize the system, has led to the challenge of Android’s being the most fragmented application ecosystem.

Today being on mobile is a must for any innovative online service. This makes it necessary to deal with the app discovery problem inherent to mobile ecosystems.

Integration with social – i.e. Facebook – can address the discovery problem by employing networked users to pull in their friends by means of app related social actions. Apple’s Game Center, which has become a successful discovery mechanism for games on iOS with its friend lists, leaderboards and achievement mechanism demonstrates this approach successfully.

The remaining challenge is the integration of mobile apps with the search ecosystem especially if a service is developed with a mobile first strategy …