Dethroning an Established Platform

  • Fernando F. Suarez and Jacqueline Kirtley
  • June 19, 2012

What can you do when a competitor has already established a leading platform? Learn from Apple’s iPhone, Google’s Gmail and Facebook — and how they overtook earlier market leaders.

Facebook, which overtook incumbent social networks MySpace and Friendster, initially aimed at Harvard University students. Facebook’s early expansion took advantage of close links at specific colleges as the social network became available to students at an increasingly long list of schools.

Image courtesy of Flickr user insiderimages.

The newest era of the Information Age could very well be called the Age of Platforms, given the explosion of markets defined by platform competition. Increasing numbers of companies big and small, whether providing hardware devices, traditional software or software in the cloud, are attempting to become platform masters by releasing application programming interfaces that allow others to build software and hardware products or complementary services on top of their technology offerings. Platform competition is expanding into many markets and can be found today in a variety of industries and on different scales: from the nearly universal platforms of the Internet, credit cards and the telephone to newer Internet-enabled platforms such as Facebook, Skype, Google Maps and PayPal.

During the last decade, several key elements that constitute a “platform theory” have emerged.1 These are now being taught in business schools and discussed by technology managers across the globe. But the existing theory does not fully explain the rise of some key players, such as Apple’s iPhone, that have entered their industries relatively late and have succeeded in dethroning powerful incumbent platforms. The experiences of these “platform dethroners” offer several important lessons for companies entering or competing in platform markets. (See “About the Research.”)

About the Research »

About the Research

As part of an ongoing research project into the evolution of the smartphone industry involving substantial data collection at the industry, company and device level, we turned our focus to the dynamics of platform dominance. We conducted semi-structured interviews at several software companies that were early developers for the iPhone in order to explore the drivers to adoption during the platform’s earliest days, which in this case we defined as the first six months of the App Store. Our interviewees represented a variety of roles, including founding entrepreneur/CEO, cross-platform software engineer, former Apple developer turned app architect, and Web and app development consultant.