On the blockchain: platform first or app first?

I was emailing with a friend recently, who asked:

“On the web, in order to build a platform you first need a hit app. Do you think this dynamic is different in blockchain?”

It’s a great question, and one I have been thinking about a lot lately.  First, let’s unpack the idea that the way to make a “platform” on the web is by starting with a hit app.  This has certainly been the case with Amazon, Google, Twitter, Facebook, Salesforce and others — where a very successful application enabled either the consumer scale (FB and Twitter), enterprise scale (Salesforce) or infrastructure scale (Google and Amazon) for others to build on.

Identity is a particularly interesting example.  To the extent that Google, Facebook and Twitter are the identity standards on the web today, those were obviously a second-order results from hit applications.   So you essentially have the infrastructure or platform layer “falling out” of, or layering-under, the application layer.

But there are counter-examples, most of which are lower-level services and developer tools: Stripe, Twilio, MongoDB, etc.  These are platforms first, by their nature — they exist only to have things built on top of them, and were able to achieve scale with that approach.

And thinking back to the creation of the web itself, I think it’s fair to say it was platform-first.  The Internet protocol stack (TCP/IP, HTTP, SMTP, etc) is horizontal infrastructure, designed in a layered model that anticipated continued development by others (though perhaps you could argue that email was the app that drove development of that platform).

So, looking at the blockchain, what does it mean to build a platform?  How will the important infrastructure features (e.g., identity, reputation, personal data, payments, etc) come to be?  Will they be achieved platform-first, or will they be a second order result from something at the application layer?

In other words, will platforms on the blockchain be built bottom-up (like the original web protocols), or top-down (like the commercial web)?

In a lot of ways, the blockchain is like the original web: protocol-based and open source.  Implemented by a group of collaborating peers.  Dueling protocol design, white papers, and RFCs.  Layered.

In other ways, the blockchain is like the commercial web: hyper growth fueled by powerful economic incentives.  Economies of scale and network effects.

I don’t have a clear answer, and maybe it will be a combination of both. But it’s really interesting to think about.


  • Twain Twain

    If we look at the Blockchain stack, it’s a replication of the W3C stack — albeit with digital money (bitcoin) and an economic mechanism (game theory) to do allocation of trust and price for those bitcoins.

    However, that still doesn’t solve the problems to do with meaningfulness, especially as it relates to the machines’ ability to understand us (language, culture, values, morals+ethics).

    So we’ll need to keep innovating because there are structures even more powerful than blockchain / Ethereum that are yet to be coded to make a true Knowledge Economy and invaluable Web.


    • yes — another way of saying this that the blockchain is like the W3C stack, except that it accounts for data / state.

      but being able to hold data and being able to make meaning from data are related but separate

      Trent McConaghy from bigchainDB is one of the most thoughtful folks I know that’s thinking about making meaning from data on the blockchain (open AI, etc). https://medium.com/@trentmc0

  • JLM

    You answered your own question when you differentiated between directly applicable consumer platforms and underlying developer platforms.

    The blockchain will be under something. Someday. Until then, it is meh!

    When an app is founded on top of a platform, there is no necessity to identify the underlying platform. The brand recognition goes to the app.


    • another way of saying this is, what’s the killer app for the blockchain? so far we are seeing several (store of value – bitcoin, app platform – ethereum) but nothing that has really reached mainstream consumers yet.

      i guess what I was getting at is that this feels like the creation of a new internet stack, and while some components are in place already, others are yet to be built, or to have become important / dominant.

      for example: identity. on some level, coinbase is the dominant identity platform in the crypto space, if you think of identity as private keys. another way of rephrasing my question is: I wonder if “apps” like coinbase will ultimately become broader platforms (e.g., for identity) or whether we will see those kinds of features bubble up from the protocol layer

  • cavepainting

    It seems a platform and protocol first approach combined with the use of tokens that are app-specific.

    But unlike tcp/ip and smtp that enabled development of new ways to connect people and businesses where none existed before, the block chain is a P2P replacement of jobs that are already being done by digital middle-men for billions of users at scale.

    The real question is: will we see a killer app that can work at scale on the block chain? If there can be one or two or a few, there will be hundreds more, and the market will find its own balance between what is done on the platform vs. apps.

    • “But unlike tcp/ip and smtp that enabled development of new ways to connect people and businesses where none existed before, the block chain is a P2P replacement of jobs that are already being done by digital middle-men for billions of users at scale.”

      ^^ one of the most interesting dynamics this time around

  • Pointsandfigures

    great post Nick. been thinking about this a lot. If we think about a world where we own our data and the app doesn’t, it might be that the underlying platform is the big winner rather than the app.

    • thanks. yes that is an important dynamic / question