January 7, 2016
By Jon Heaps
“Platform technology” isn’t just a hot buzzword. Building a platform can provide not only endless customization options for customers, but also new revenue opportunities for you. Think about it: When Apple created the iPhone, it didn’t also create the thousands of apps that now run on iOS. Apple simply provided a base on which unique applications could run; it was the iPhone users who drove the creativity and demand behind the apps. Likewise, platforms provide a base upon which companies can build unique apps that speak to the needs of their businesses.
Like what? Today your customers are demanding more than just out-of-the-box communications solutions. They want technology that will address the distinct needs and challenges of their individual organizations and markets and also differentiate them from the competition. And the more innovative the business or competitive the industry, the more extensive the wish list.
True communications platforms can help businesses to do just that and more. They empower users to customize, extend and integrate existing applications with voice, SMS, video, chat and collaboration capabilities, or build entirely new, one-of-a-kind communications applications that speak to the unique demands of their business.
Unfortunately, because the platform market is still young, confusion abounds. Understanding the nuances of various platform offerings, communications or otherwise, will better position you as the expert with your clients and help you guide them to a solution that truly fits their needs, so let’s define some terms.
Straight Talk About Platforms
Two common terms you will often hear when discussing platforms are “API” (application program interface) and “plug-in.”
An API is a software intermediary that makes it possible for applications to interact with one another, share data and achieve specific functionality, while a plug-in is a software component that adds a specific feature to an existing computer program. Keeping these definitions in mind, we can dive into the ways the term “platform” is commonly being used in the communications industry:
Platform as a marketing term: Some vendors use “platform” as a way to label a suite of interconnected products — in essence, as a marketing term. In this scenario, the vendor may offer some built-in configuration options, such as the ability to give different preset permissions to different user types. The vendor may also offer pre-built plug-ins or APIs to facilitate integration with other SaaS products. But other than these options, your client’s ability to request customized features will be limited. In addition, the time frame to deliver specific features is dictated by the vendor’s product road map and development cycles. On the upside, if this is a SaaS product, virtually no additional maintenance or equipment is needed.
Platform as an API-based solution: In this scenario, a platform allows users to create custom software applications by developing code that interacts with the vendor’s solution through APIs. The customer is responsible for buying, managing and scaling the infrastructure that their app lives on, while the vendor manages the back-end telecom. This model offers extensive flexibility for customization, giving users the ability to bring new products or features to market faster, with no restrictions by the vendor. However, since the intent of the technology is to serve as a base for unique apps, typically there are no corresponding off-the-shelf offerings.
Platform as a Service (PaaS): Similar to API-based platforms, true PaaS solutions also allow users to build, deploy and modify their own custom apps on their own timelines. Most PaaS solutions also provide dynamic programming capabilities, giving users a deep level of control over functionality and allowing for complex logic to be built into apps.
However, the defining factor of a true PaaS offering is that the cloud vendor (versus the customer) provides full hosting, scaling and management of the infrastructure that user-built apps live on. Rather than spending time and money to purchase, spin up and manage hardware, developers can simply write and deploy code directly to the platform. APIs can then be used as needed for integrating with other third-party systems. This results in lower costs, the ability to scale apps quickly and easily, and more opportunities for users to focus on their business versus their infrastructure.
Why Knowing Where the App Lives is Important
Where the app lives not only impacts ease of management, it can also affect the timeliness and quality of communications delivery. While this gets technical, it’s important to understand this information and take it into consideration based on your client’s feature wish list.
With a solely API-based platform, API requests and responses are sent back and forth between the platform back-end infrastructure, the customer’s app, and perhaps even third-party systems such as a CRM, allowing the systems to “talk” to one another and perform corresponding actions. Barring problems, each request and response typically take a few hundred milliseconds. That’s pretty fast in the minds of most people and nearly undetectable with something like an SMS, where the receiving party doesn’t know exactly when the message was sent. However, on a phone call, where people expect an instant response, even the slightest delays become noticeable and irritating. In a complex scenario, say, a high-volume call center or an app with complex call-routing logic, those milliseconds can add up quickly, causing latency or even issues with misrouted calls.
With a true PaaS solution, where apps live directly on the platform, app logic is located on the same infrastructure as the call endpoints. This minimizes, or even eliminates, the number of API calls involved and the associated milliseconds of time, reducing latency and resulting in better experience for the caller.
Having a working knowledge of the ways in which platforms differ will not only help you gauge how these systems could benefit your clients, but also how much effort and money it will take to make solutions happen. You’ll also be in a position to ask the right questions to determine which platform is right for each client. I’ll be covering that topic in depth in my next article.
Jon Heaps is responsible for Corvisa‘s global channel sales strategy and overseeing partner relationships. Jon brings over 20 years of experience in sales, distribution channels, marketing and business management with leading software technology and telecommunications providers, including inContact, CarrierSales, Touch America and Qwest Communications.
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