Man reading newspaper // Photo credit: rawpixel unsplash

Annabelle Gawer is a world leading platform expert and Professor of Digital Economy at the University of Surrey and regularly advises policymakers across Europe about the regulation of online platforms.

“In the past 10 or 15 years, ‘platforms’ and ‘digital platforms’ have become pervasive buzzwords,” says Annabelle.

This is the same person whose MIT professor once said to her, “Interesting thesis, but don’t use the word ‘platform’ in the title. No one knows what it means”.

What is a platform?

The European Commission defines online platforms as “search engines, social media, e-commerce platforms, app stores, price comparison websites”. Annabelle cuts through such lists and goes straight to the heart of the matter, “a platform is simply a building block or template on top of which lots of people can innovate”.

In The Rise of the Platform Enterprise: A Global Survey, by Annabelle Gawer and Peter Evans and published earlier this year, platforms are taken to create value in two principal ways. These are by being ‘transaction platforms’ such as Uber and Airbnb, or ‘innovation platforms’ like the Apple iPhone that provide the technological building blocks upon which large numbers of innovators can develop products.

“The word platform actually pre-dates our so-called digital economy,” Annabelle says. “If you think of product families such as automobile manufacturing or in the 1980s, when Sony were building Sony Walkmans, they had at their core a template, a chassis, an architecture that can then be innovated upon by adding and plugging in little peripheral components and changing the overall product.”

Creating value is something platforms are doing in bucket-loads. Their report, based on a comprehensive survey of 176 platform companies around the world, found the aggregate market value of platforms to be over USD4.3 trillion.

So, from automobiles to Zipcar and Uber, platforms are hugely influential and exciting policymakers, businesses and individuals alike.