What’s the difference between a medium and a platform?
I was thinking about this in relation to Arthur “Pinch” Sulzberger Jr.’s famous comment about being “platform-agnostic,” and why it didn’t make much sense; you have to be “platform-specific” if you want to take full advantage of everything you can do in the medium you’re working in. And it struck me that being “platform-specific” doesn’t really go far enough; you have to be “medium-specific.”
This may be just semantics, but it seems to me people often speak of platforms from a technological point of view – what publishing platform are you on, what’s the difference between the iPad and the web as a platform, and so on. That makes sense, but doesn’t take us far along enough in thinking about the products we make.
Print – or ink on dead trees – is a platform, but any magazine editor will tell you that there’s a world of difference between how you edit a weekly, monthly, quarterly or daily. Canvas is a platform, but there are huge differences between how an oil painting and a watercolor are constructed. Each is a media of its own, distinct and separate, with its own attributes, strengths and weaknesses. We wouldn’t talk about the “canvas platform” any more than we should talk about the “iPad platform.”
To be sure, some of this really just is semantics. But semantics do matter, because – as George Orwell noted in 1984 – they can shape the way we think. The business of running print newspapers is a finely honed 0ne – ask any seasoned business-side executive at a well-run paper (and yes, there are such things), and he or she will be able to talk about ways to optimize the print run, distribution routes, audience segmentation, day-of-week content, and a hundred similar tricks that have allowed media companies to extract maximum value out of those products. That’s not to say if that’s a good thing or a bad thing; only that a whole understanding of the business has grown up around that particular media. And similar ones around broadcast TV news, cable programming, monthly magazines and so on.
But that’s very media – and platform – specific knowledge. Some insights may transfer themselves to other media; but many will not. Thinking through what each media can do, and how readers/users will interact with it, is critical if we’re to make things that people want.
For example, Mario Garcia, the newspaper designer, has suggested running several iPad versions a day, for example – a morning edition when people are catching up with news, a lunchtime one which people may want to browse while grabbing a bite, and an evening one when they have more time to read. Each would have different content and a different agenda. That leverages the easy distribution of an iPad app, as well as the “editioning” ability of the app to deliver a specific set of content at a set time (as opposed to a website, which is continuously updated, and which users expect to be updated.) That’s a bit like old-fashioned multiple editions of a paper, but different: Mario is suggesting, for example, that that lunchtime edition be mostly photos.
We’ve already seen some of this experimentation in the difference between The Wall Street Journal’s app and the New York Times’ Editor’s Choice app. We won’t know what works until we try it.
But we won’t try it if we confuse platforms with media and with products.