There’s a new battle raging for customer eyeballs, application developers, and ultimately… dollar signs. To set the stage, flash back to the first platform war: the OS. Windows sat entrenched as the unassailable heavyweight, with Linux and Mac OS barely on the scene as fringe contenders. But the ultimate demise of Windows’ platform dominance didn’t come from another OS at all; it came from the move to the browser. Microsoft initially saw the problem and nipped it in the bud by packaging IE with Windows, then tried to prolong the inevitable by locking the IE team away in a dark basement and trying to stifle browser innovation by favoring closed solutions for browser development like Silverlight instead of open standards like HTML 5. That strategy clearly wouldn’t work forever, and the net result was a big boost in the market share of competing browsers like Firefox and ultimately Chrome. Suddenly people weren’t writing native Windows apps anymore, they were writing applications that ran in the browser and could run on any OS.
The pattern of trumping a dominant platform by building at a higher level has repeated itself many times since. In some sense Google subverted platform power from the browser by becoming the only discovery mechanism for browser apps. When social burst onto the scene Facebook and Twitter became king of the hill by changing the game again. The move to mobile devices has created a bit of a flashback to the days of OS platform dominance, but it’s inevitably a temporary shift. At some point history will repeat itself as devices will continue to become more powerful, standards will prevail, and developers will insist on a way to avoid writing the same app for multiple platforms.
Which brings us to today, as the platforms du jour are again threatened. In this iteration the challenger to the dominance of Facebook and Twitter is the domain specific social apps that are built on top of them. When social network users share their status with friends, text + images + location isn’t enough anymore. Different kinds of activities call for customized mechanisms of data entry and ways to share the data that are tailored for the experience. For instance, when I play 18 holes of golf I enter and share my data with Golfshot GPS, which makes data entry a joy by providing me yardages and information about the course and gives my friends the ability to see very granular details on my round when I share. When I drink a beer I share with Untappd, when I eat at a restaurant I share a Yelp review, if I want to share a panoramic view I use Panorama 360. Even the basic functions like sharing photos and location work better with Instagram and Foursquare than Facebook’s built in mechanisms.
The social networks will never be able to provide this kind of rich interaction for every experience, and they shouldn’t attempt to. At the same time they run the risk of the higher level apps becoming the social network and stealing eyeballs; a position which some apps like Foursquare clearly already have their eyes on. For power users these apps have already made themselves the place to go and enter domain specific data. That trend will continue to expand into the mainstream as people continue to dream up rich ways to capture real life experiences through customized apps. To use the OS analogy: there’s no way that Microsoft can dream up everything that people want to build on top of Windows and bake it into the OS, nor would it be a good thing for consumers if they could.
It will be interesting to see how Facebook and Twitter respond to the trend. I suspect that users will continue to move towards domain specific apps for sharing, but that the social networks will remain the place to browse aggregated status for friends across specific domains. Unless, of course, the owners of the highest profile apps somehow manage to get together and develop an open standard for sharing/storing data and create an alternative browse experience across apps to avoid being limited by the whims of Facebook and Twitter and the limitations on their APIs.