'Tis the season of platforms. Facebook has one. So does Bebo and MySpace. Google too has a platform, as does Adobe, and Amazon, not to mention Sun's Java.
The platforms differ in terms of scope and capabilities, but they're all at heart places to run software.
Currently, there are a lot more places to run software than there used to be, thanks to the proliferation of mobile phones and other devices, and the simultaneous standardization that's required for such devices to interact with the Internet.
So it is that much of the buzz about platforms at Web 2.0 has to do with defining platforms: their relation to the Web, their capabilities, and their boundaries.
Microsoft's Live Mesh, in its current preview form, represents an effort to define the Windows operating system as a platform that spans PCs, the Internet, and Windows-capable devices. At its heart, it is a data synchronization service, but it is also a bid to define Microsoft as the source of cloud computing.
Indeed, Microsoft claims to have ambitions beyond the wedding of Windows and the Internet. "[O]ur vision of your device mesh extends far beyond this," says Mital in a blog post. "In the near future, we'll add support for the Mac and mobile devices, and then we'll build upon that foundation."
Microsoft, it seems, is embracing software as a service, rather than as a reason to commit to Windows. It remains to be seen however whether Windows users will occupy positions of privilege on Microsoft's evolving platform.
Mital characterized the debut of Live Mesh as "the beginning of an ongoing dialog with you that spawns lots of new ideas and opportunities."
That's another way of saying we still haven't entirely figured out how this works as a business, which is more or less an issue for everyone deploying platforms and developing on them at the moment.
At Web 2.0 Expo session called "Comparing Social Platforms," representatives from Bebo, Facebook, Google, MySpace, and Six Apart mulled how social networks would work as platforms.
While Dave Morin, senior platform manager at Facebook, said that he expected the distribution system for apps on the Facebook platform would become more market-based, he also expressed uncertainty about how things would develop.
"It's sort of a new territory and we're all going through it together," said Morin.
That's not the sort of detailed, sober road map that developers or corporate users like to see. (Of course, at a time of daily application builds and perpetual betas, such Soviet-style five-year plans for software don't really exist anymore.)
Toward the end of the session, an audience member, perhaps reacting to the lack of certainty about the future of social platforms, asked whether, as developers come to rely on such platforms, there will be service-level agreements (SLAs), premium models, or support options?
Allen Hurff, senior VP of engineering at MySpace, confessed that wasn't something MySpace thought a lot about for smaller developers, despite having SLAs with large companies.
Morin acknowledged that was a good question and valuable feedback to consider. But like MySpace, Facebook had no reassurance to offer. "We're literally in the first year of a new kind of operating system," he said.
Welcome aboard your new platform, and watch your step.