David Chappell


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The Sixth Platform  
# Sunday, December 28, 2008
How many different hardware platform styles have we seen in the history of business computing? Let's count.

First were mainframes, appearing in the 1960s. Next were minicomputers, which got popular in the 1970s. Desktop computers were next, in the eighties, followed by servers based on similar technology. I'd also argue that mobile devices, especially phones, qualify as an important platform style.

Mainframes, minicomputers, desktops, servers, mobile phones: That's five platform styles in a little less than 50 years. New kinds of hardware platforms for business computing just don't appear very often.

Yet one is being born right now: The cloud is the sixth platform.

New platforms don't replace what came before--they add another option. Just as mainframes weren't wiped out by minicomputers, desktop machines, or anything else, so the cloud won't eliminate any of the earlier platform styles. It just provides another choice for us to use.

Given how rarely new platform styles appear, we're all lucky to be here when one is emerging. For anybody who cares about technology, it's a great time to be alive.

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While I would agree cloud is a new platform. I do not agree with the lack of platforms. There have been many platforms. Here is a list of a few to add to your list:

Touch Screen Systems,
POS Platforms (think resturants and retail),
Gaming Consoles,
Gaming Consoles hand helds,
Apple/Zune devices as a platform,
The list is virtually endless.

Will all these platforms stand the test time time. I think not. But some are perennials and others will be melded into the general PC experience. Like Windows including touch out of the box with Windows 7 basically making Tablet PCs a given.

A couple of responses, Josh. First, notice that I was specifically referring to platforms for business computing. This is why things like game consoles (which I agree are a platform style) and Zunes (which at the moment are consumer devices) aren't included. Second, I'd argue that the other things you name either aren't different enough to qualify (laptops are just desktops that I can move--the apps they run are much the same), aimed at a specialized problem (POS platforms), or interface technologies rather than complete platforms (tablets and touch screens).

Still, there's probably no single list of platforms that everybody would agree on. I just find this one a useful way to think about our world today.

It's amazing how similar the Cloud platform is to Mainframe. You could put the feature lists side by side and almost not be able to tell the difference.

I agree--clouds look a lot like mainframes. One hugely important difference, though, is the business model for public clouds. Unlike the mainframe-based service bureaus of the past, which typically required long-term contracts, cloud services like Amazon's EC2 are available to anybody on demand. Two guys with a laptop and a credit card now have immediate access to a world-class data center. This is a wonderful thing, no?

The Cloud model has been used in many mobile phones applications since there was no such a term even. While lacking device resources mobile developers had to use remote powers and services.

So i don't think that the Cloud model deserve to represent a new platform in this list. I don't even think that the mobile devices are a distinct platform also - see, if you say that laptop is a moveable desctop, then a mobile phone is a moveable desctop that combines its functions with a mainframe terminal ones.

There's no definition of "platform" that everybody would agree on. Here, I'm taking an application-oriented view, and so I'd argue that different platforms imply that you must write apps differently, as you typically do with desktop machines and cell phones (or mainframes and minicomputers). It's true that Web-based applications have been available for more than a decade, used by cell phones and in lots of other ways. What's new in the last couple of years is the ability for businesses and ISVs to create arbitrary applications on cloud platforms run by third parties: Amazon EC2, Microsoft's Windows Azure, etc. This is the change that constitutes a new platform type.

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