« Power to the people » : software vendors in the age of the multitude

Two French authors are promoting a concept they name « the multitude« . They consider that the value creation in the digital revolution (third industrial revolution) is directly related to the ability of unleashing the power of the multitude. In this context, organizations need to position themselves as builders of apps or builders of platforms the latter being much more multitude-oriented. After explaining this, I’ll try to see how open source software vendors meet the authors’ criterias and how they’re definitely among the champions of the Age of the multitude.

Two French entrepreneurs, Nicolas Colin and Henri Verdier, have published a very interesting book earlier this year (L’Âge de la multitude, “The Age of the Multitude”, ed. Armand Colin, May 2012). The authors assume that the digital revolution is now a reality that every organization (whether government agency or private/public company) needs to include at the core of its strategy. They define the digital revolution as an era where technological innovations accelerate and meet radical innovators who are able to consolidate technological novelties and thus imagine something radically new.

Colin (@Nicolas_Colin) and Verdier (@HenriVerdier) consider that we’ve entered a new industrial order (see Jeremy Rifkin for more on that), one in which, like in the first and second industrial revolutions, entrepreneurs use technologies, sometimes old ones, to change the world.

The main idea behind the book is that in this new industrial order, individuals empowered like never before to create, communicate and coordinate, a power establishing a creative, interconnected and mobile community of individuals  that they designate as « the multitude ». The power of the multitude is a positive external factor for every organization to leverage. To unleash the power of the multitude, organizations have to :

  • engage with the multitude by creating applications where they can follow the trace of end users and create value based on that
  • consolidate existing capabilities by transforming them into platforms or create brand new platforms, ie : offer a set of ressources enabling others to build applications thus capturing the largest possible amount of creativity of the multitude and the value it generates

Of course the authors illustrate their theory with interesting case studies :

  • of applications leveraging the multitude such as : Instagram, Tumblr, etc.
  • of platforms leveraging the multitude such as Apple’s App store, Facebook, Amazon, Salesforce, Wikipedia, etc.

They also go beyond the digital blue chips and consider the possibility for cars manufacturers to become providers of platforms [see article in French] rather than just providing end-users with applications (cars) for which they’re the only providers of slightly customized apps (cars with options). Car manufacturers transforming into platform providers means they would accept (like Apple did with iOS) to provide the main ressources that the end users need and, in the same time, enable other providers (the opposite of sub-contractors, sur-contractors if I may say) to adress end users needs. The idea here is to unleash the power of the multitude by letting people (end users) talk to people (app providers) who would create the right applications on top of the platform manufacturers provide.

A colleague (@romaindelalande) highlighted another non-digital products/services example : Unsineadesign.com is a platform providing the ability to customize the furniture you’re willing to buy and takes the order for various furniture designers and manufacturers.

The theory Colin and Verdier are presenting in this book is something that open source software vendros (such as Acquia, Alfresco or Nuxeo) completely believe in and execute on a daily basis :

  • they’re committed to open source meaning they provide a business model and a development model that leverages the multitude : they create their own components and these are sometimes assembled with existing open sources components (developed by the multitude) to provide innovative technical features and business functionality ; they partly rely on the community of developers and users of their technology (their own subset of the multitude) to get feedback, documentation, etc. ; they also partly rely on the community (multitude) to communicate on how good their technology is ; etc.
  • they provide a set of resources that they call platform (APIs, implementation of open standards, source code to inspire community developers, training and mostly free documentation, etc.)
  • they provide a set of applications that they build on top of their own platform (cloud document management system, on premise DMS, records management system, rich media management system, iOS applications, Android applications, etc.)

And those software vendors are not alone in the implementation of this vision :

  • their ecosystem (i.e. their own subset of the multitude) is a community of individuals who use their cloud app (some of them for free), who use their on premise app, who use the components of their platform to build new apps
  • new apps are sometimes custom apps built by system integrator for a specific customer with the vendor’s help (through the subscription the vendor sells enabling the SI and the end client to get support from vendor’s experts)
  • new apps can also be new pieces of software, sometimes open source (example : addons.alfresco.com) and sometimes (less often) not, built by third-party vendors   relying on the platform provider and those community members (i.e. the platform provider’s own multitude) are creative people who not only use the technology but also build their own business models on top of it : they definitely need the platform and the services (i.e. support subscriptions) to get their apps working and their reveue generated.

Colin and Verdier consider that the champions of the digital revolution are platform operators who are able to capture the value generated by the multitude. Open platform providers in the software industry are definitely champions in their domains and they have so far succeeded in building global communities creating value everyday in areas where their competitors are far from being able to imagine the open innovation virtuous cycle that they embraced thanks to open source and open standards.

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