The Architecture of Platforms: A Unified View

by Carliss Y. Baldwin & C. Jason Woodard

Overview — Product and system designers have long exploited opportunities to create families of complex artifacts by developing and recombining modular components. An especially common design pattern is associated with the concept of a platform, which Baldwin and Woodard define as a set of stable components that supports variety and evolvability in a system by constraining linkages among the other components. In this paper, the authors shed light on the relationships between platforms and the systems in which they are embedded to better understand and explain firms and industries where platforms play an important role. Key concepts include:

  • There is a fundamental unity in the architecture of platforms.
  • The combination of stability and variety in the architecture makes it possible to create novelty without developing a new system from scratch. Thus platform systems are evolvable.
  • Although they display a fundamental unity at the level of architecture, platform systems vary a great deal in construction and appearance.
  • A benefit of viewing platform architectures in a unified way is that theories and observations of seemingly disparate phenomena in diverse fields can be brought into focus as part of a coherent whole.

Author Abstract

The central role of "platform" products and services in mediating the activities of disaggregated "clusters" or "ecosystems" of firms has been widely recognized. But platforms and the systems in which they are embedded are very diverse. In particular, platforms may exist within firms as product lines, across firms as multi-product systems, and in the form of multi-sided markets. In this paper we argue that there is a fundamental unity in the architecture of platforms. Platform architectures are modularizations of complex systems in which certain components (the platform itself) remain stable, while others (the complements) are encouraged to vary in crosssection or over time. Among the most stable elements in a platform architecture are the modular interfaces that mediate between the platform and its complements. These interfaces are even more stable than the interior core of the platform, thus control over the interfaces amounts to control over the platform and its evolution. We describe three ways of representing platform architectures: network graphs, design structure matrices and layer maps. We conclude by addressing a number of fundamental strategic questions suggested by a unified view of platforms.

Paper Information