Platform Innovation // Blog

How to Build a Developer Network

A development platform connects consumers with software created by third-party developers, but attracting those developers can be extremely difficult. In order for a platform to build a developer network, it needs to overcome the chicken and egg problem. The biggest challenge is that it needs to provide a unique value proposition to its developers, who are the producer in a development platform. Without a compelling value proposition for developers, it will be impossible to solve the chicken and egg problem and the platform will fail.

A Quick Refresher: Development Platform Types

First, let’s refer back to the three different types of development platforms: closed vs. controlled vs. open.

The latter two platforms require an operating system to run on hardware like iOS, Xbox or Linux. Developers are writing software to run directly on the operating system and using the API’s created by the platform. Consumers are then interacting with the third-party applications through a user interface like an Xbox controller, a keyboard on your computer or your smartphone’s touchscreen.

A closed development platform, like Salesforce, does not provide the underlying operating system to its developers. Instead, the developers aren’t building at the OS layer but rather building around the data from Salesforce to provide value to Salesforce’s end-customers.

Two Types of Value Propositions for Third Party Developers

There are two main types of value propositions: providing control over hardware or creating valuable insights and new services derived from the data in the platform. A development platform could do one or the other, and in some cases, it could solve for both value propositions.

Controlling Hardware

Smart Things and IFTTT (If This, Then That) are a couple examples of closed development platforms that let its producers build software to control hardware. Smart Things and IFTTT have integrated with home appliances, outlets, voice assistants and other consumer devices. They provide a common API to developers so that software can be made for the end-users to more conveniently interact and control the devices in their home. These capabilities have been around for a few years now and have been met with decent response from the market, even though continued fragmentation limits their potential.

How much utility is users gain from controlling a piece of hardware varies depending on the product and use case. Turning your lights on or off has been a relatively simple scenario. The problem with this use case is: how many different apps does a consumer need that change the color of their lights? The answer is not many. And, certainly not many consumers are going to be willing to pay for this functionality from a third-party developer. Without paying customers, it’s pretty hard to build a developer ecosystem.

One way to unlock more utility for a developer community is to think about who the potential producers are and how the platform can broaden the spectrum of interested developers. Development platforms can facilitate other kinds of services, not just the sale of software.a

For example, Uber, Lyft and other ridehailing companies built their business around services enabled by smartphone operating systems and hardware. But they aren’t selling software –  they’re selling physical services. Or let’s look at smart locks. Not only do consumers use apps provided by the lock manufacturers or Smart Things, but other third parties also want access like Amazon. These third parties are also considered producers, as they would build software to integrate with the platform so that a service could be provided into the home.

Additionally, other closed development platforms are poised to take off in industries with machinery that is becoming autonomous, such as drones. As drone makers provide out-of-the-box autonomous software, a myriad of service providers could build apps, as producers, for a drone development platform. Farmers, for example, could choose from a variety of apps that would help the farmer use their drone to determine where to seed, what to fertilize, what crops are at risk, etc.

Creating Insights

A game on your iPhone creates an experience derived from the data users input with their fingers. Or an application like MapAnything optimizes customers’ location data in Salesforce.

The diversity and relevance of the data provided to the developers will create more opportunities for them to innovate and create value for the end-users.

As the iPhone added more sensors to each subsequent device, a direct correlation existed between new data types and number of apps released to the App Store. Uber was built on GPS sensors the same way Snapchat was built on the camera sensor. Similarly, the Wii’s sensors enabled a new wave of apps and games be created specifically for the Wii based upon its unique interaction model with the platform. The result was the best-selling game system of all time.

In Salesforce’s case, enabling app developers to not only provide insights to end-users, but curate and fix the actual data helped unlock additional value for consumers.

Unlocking new sensors and new kinds of data will create unique value for developers as you become the only platform that enables them to build new customers experiences and new kinds of services around that data.

Follow the Money

Finally, while unique value is important to attracting developers to your platform, developers will only stick around if they can monetize. You need to have a clear path for developers to get paying users, otherwise retention will be low.

This is the exact reason most mobile developers in the U.S. build for iOS first and Android second. With more paying customers on iOS, developers follow the money.

If you can combine unique hardware or data with monetization, then you have the recipe for a successful developer network.

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