I saw this article today about platforms. While I agree with some of its points, the overall conclusion that "Building a business exclusively on top of another service is irresponsible and naïve." is flat out wrong. I always laugh when I hear stuff like that and think "tell it to the guy who made Mob Wars." He’s making (irresponsibly and naively I guess) millions per year exclusively on top of another service.
Being in the Facebook App business now, I sort of know what the author is talking about. You do have to be ever-mindful of the fact that you’re playing in somebody else’s back yard. You’re playing by their rules, and are totally at their mercy.
Still, it can be worth it because there are a few mitigating factors. For one, their interest and yours are usually at least somewhat aligned. Facebook’s success is in no small part due to their platform. It’s expanded the utility of what would otherwise be little more than a place to cyberstalk people (which granted, is popular in its own right) into what is now a place to cyberstalk people and play games. It’s doubled in usefulness.
An application platform doesn’t want to run off all of its developers. Even though they sometimes seem capricious and arbitrary, you can be reasonably certain they’re not going to screw you for no good reason. They can, of course, or they can screw you for a good reason, so it’s a risk factor you certainly should be mindful of. But it’s not as bad as it sounds.
And that risk factor, in the case of some of the more popular platforms, is made up for overwhelmingly by the platform itself. With Facebook or Myspace, you have the ability to grow rapidly and virally, much more easily than you would on the net. Our most recent game, Football Tycoon, has grown to over 50,000 users in about two months, and is gaining a significant chunk of new ones each day. That’s something that just wouldn’t have been doable as a standalone website due to the lack of a compelling invite system.
An iPhone app can take advantage of the app store’s distribution network to sell or give away millions of copies in no time. A Twitter app can leverage the intense engagement users have with the service to quickly build a product that thousands of people will love.
It’s just a matter of risk and reward. You’re taking the risk of your overlord making changes that aversely affect you, but you’re gaining the reward of virality, distribution, or engagement. It’s a tradeoff to be sure, but not one that isn’t sometimes worth making, or that is patently irresponsible or naïve, so long as you’re mindful of it.