Discerning the Tail from the Dog

Came across this TechCrunch post yesterday entitled: “Firefox 3.5 not playing nicely with Twitter”. This seems pretty innocuous at first — “ok, so what if app X doesn’t work in some new browser”; however, looking a bit deeper the choice of words here is actually pretty interesting. This post implies that it’s Firefox’s “fault” for not “playing nicely” withΒ  Twitter – not the other way around.

It wasn’t too long ago that I remember our teams wildly running around to enable our application to support “browser x” (do you know major companies still use IE6?). The browser was always the top dog, and you (the app developer) had to support it.

When did the rules change? When did the browser become the tail, and the applications become the top dog?

More generally: how or when does a power shift occur from the platform itself, to the ecosystem around it? I believe it inevitably happens in “open” ecosystems (i.e. platforms are open) such as browsers. Exactly how, is a function of two conditions:

1)Β  Competition drives commoditization

When multiple platforms exist in competition, leverage is shifted to the applications. Today, we now have three legitimate, mainstream browsers (sorry Opera). So when “killer applications” seamlessly cross over to support multiple platforms they increase their user base, which brings us to the next condition…

2) Application user base overtakes that of the platform

When the audience for the application grows across platforms such that it is greater than that of any single platform, the power shifts. While this is clearly a function of time, it’s really about who “owns” the customer. Do users flock to the application or platform? In this case, when the application commands the audience and is available cross-channel, power moves away from the platform.

Where else is this happening?

While we’ve used the browser as an example, we can also point to examples on the desktop (MS Office) and gaming consoles (Rockband). Similarly you can look at media the same way, where syndication and “super distribution” have enabled the content to fill the role of “applications”, and aggregators as “platform”.

What’s the alternative?

The alternative is for platforms to take a “walled garden” approach, and strike exclusivity deals for content & applications. In reality there is often a hybrid approach taken, which has the advantage of gaining users and creating lock-in. In reality some hybrid approaches seem to be theΒ  evolving method, but what is the right balance?


So, ask yourself in your industry, partner ecosystem, or product lineup: what’s the “tail” and what’s the “dog”? You may just be surprised what the answer is.

Tell me what you think

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