IT Platforms and the Ecology of Innovation

It has been fun being back in Beijing this week. My first visit to the city was in 1989 when the streets were still filled with bicycles. I’ve been back here about once a year since then yet the pace of progress on so many levels is still hard to comprehend. Growth of the 'Starbucks Index' alone is mind blowing and seems to be reaching Seattle or New York densities. The other thing I’ve noticed is the incredible focus on efficiency; from the three hour turn-around for a visa at the Chinese Consulate in Zurich (Try that at the US Embassy), to the immigration process and flow through the airport. Yes, the traffic is still a nightmare and seems to be getting worse. I don’t live here so I can imagine there is an alternate reality I’m not aware of. However, the general experience for visitors is pretty impressive.

I had a chance to catch up with Microsoft’s National Technology Officer Sean Zhang on Wednesday for a great evening of conversation. I’ll also be able to see Peter Moore and Michael Thatcher before I leave so that’s an added bonus.

The reason for the visit to Beijing was an invitation to present at the Chinese Academy of Governance today. The Academy is responsible for training senior civil servants in the PRC administration. My presentation is titled «IT Platforms and the Ecology of Innovation» (PDF copy here) and focuses on the how the evolution of IT platforms has enabled the development of the global service economy. I’ll take a historic look at how these platforms have evolved and then will talk about the coming disruptive effects of the 'Cloud' platform and those which follow.

This is presentation comes out of ongoing work with Prof. John Zysman and the team at UC Berkeley’s BRIE. One of the things which is central but still the center of a heated debate is how you define an IT Platform i.e. rigorously enough for it to be used as an analytical definition when looking at the surrounding political economy issues. The current definition I’m using is:

A consistent development environment supported by new software and hardware architectures, based on standards and available at scale, that enables service and business model innovation

This is not perfect and I’m open to suggestions about how to improve it. Any definition needs to be able to delineate historic platform transitions in a clear and defensible way and also be able to help identify when a new transition is taking place.

I’m looking forward to a interesting discussion and debate about the opportunities and policy challenges these new platforms will create in the Chinese context. Should be fun.

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