Academic research on platforms can basically be divided into two areas of study: On the one hand, platforms are seen as technical infrastructures that provide core functionality for complimentary products, e.g. a mobile operating system providing camera functionality for a wide range of apps. On the other hand, platforms are seen as digital marketplaces that are controlled by private firms, e.g. the App Store where the platform operator controls which developers get access and how the apps are ranked. The conceptual distinction, however, makes little sense in face of the empirical trend of hybrid platforms that are characterized by a high relevance of infrastructural services as well as a high degree of market organization by the platform provider. Therefore, I suggest to theoretically integrate those two platform concepts by conceptualizing platforms as organized marketplaces centered around a certain technical infrastructure where both market and infrastructure are in the control of one entity. This perspective allows relating insights from research on software platforms with research on gig economy or dating platforms, as all three are seen as specific subtypes of platforms only with a different degree to which the infrastructure or the market organization is relevant (see figure below).
The central research question of my PhD-project is how the specific governance of digital platforms, which consists of a privately regulated market as well as governance through a technological infrastructure, enables the technical innovations on those platforms. Basically, there is an interdependence between platform and app: you cannot innovate the platform without considering the apps and you cannot improve an app without considering the platform. Theoretically, this technological interdependence results in a high incentive not to innovate any of them as platform providers, as well as app developers are interested in maintaining compatibility. In practice, however, platforms and apps have very short and frequent update cycles. My central research hypothesis is that the idiosyncratic characteristics of the governance of digital platforms enable the various actors in the field to overcome the theoretical stalemate situation. To investigate the mechanisms through which platforms and apps coordinate with each other, I conduct qualitative interviews with app developers, CTOs, and computer scientists as well as extensive document analyses of several types of field documents.
© Chris Grieser