The pay-as-you-go nature and resulting possibilities have allowed creativity has enabled thousands if not masses of entrepreneurs to get their ideas started, develop web sites, and host data for mobile applications ...all with minimal startup investments.

The opposite to these generative platforms are labeled "sterile" technologies: The can also be regarded as 'black boxes' – technologies restricted by the technology owner for pre-defined inflexible uses, and difficult or impossible to by the manufacturer to a single set of uses, and which can't easily be modified or extended by the user. An example is the iPhone: controlled by Apple entirely on the phone's launch. At that point in time, this seems to have been an example of very limited imagination of the possibilities of the iPhone. Why? Because since the launch of the App Store (2008) the iPhone inspired hundreds of thousands independently developed iPhone apps to de developed. Many of these even developed into successful businesses or new platforms of their own. ,
But it's important to consider actual control here: as an entrepreneur, the incentives to develop your own app are questionable if its success depends on strict control by someone else: the owner of the main platform.

Some examples of platform dependency risk

A generation back, older businesses that specialized in DOS or Windows applications faced similar challenges. For example, if their application solved a particular problem or weak spot in the platform or provided something particularly smart, useful or valuable, Microsoft would update with an improved feature or bug fix with the next software version of their operating system – leaving the independent feature instantly obsolete and out of business, and the entrepreneur in cold water.

Back to the present: businesses that generated large followings on Facebook suddenly found out how being dependent on the continuity of the Facebook business model had unexpected and negative consequences for them when Facebook changed the rules. Before, it was entirely possible on Facebook to build thousands or millions of "Likes", and then deliver marketing messages to the whole fan or customer base. That suddenly changed, when Facebook decided you now needed to pay the platform for distributing messages. The result: Organic reach of messages to one's fan base has dropped to nearly zero, even for business with millions of followers. For those expecting distribution to continue for free, and built part of their marketing strategy around this understanding, this was a huge set-back.

Web content marketers who relied on inbound traffic from Google searches were severely affected when Google made changes to its keyword and ranking algorithms in their move towards penalizing "content farms" and link bait. While most would agree that this move was desirable for users of the Google search engine, it wasn't positive for marketers using content farm strategies.

Platform captivity isn't always a dead end

By and large, most entrepreneurs aren't terribly concerned with kind of 'platform captivity' risks. Facebook reaches nearly a billion people every day, and that makes it irresistible marketing platform. Unless AWS stops providing cheap, flexible, easy-to-use computing power, it will continue to be a smart choice. And as long as Google indexes billions of Web pages and remains the number one search tool on the net, people will continue to optimize their sites for Google's search engines.

If and when these large platforms change their rules of engagement to the point where it becomes unfeasible or unacceptable, business built on top of it will need to adapt...the same as having to adapt to other changes in in market conditions.

Asking the right question about openness from the start

But the crucial learning is this: entrepreneurs and other technology strategists must pay attention to both architecture and business model of the platforms there are piggybacking on. The "generative or sterile", either-or distinction is probably too simplistic to be of any use in all cases. Open platforms don't always need to be open source. But relative openness is highly important and relevant for decision-making.

Is the platform open enough so that you can develop any extension or app that you see fit? Can your app be offered to the customers that you need to reach? Are you overly dependent on a gatekeeper? Would changes to the platform business model endanger your own business model or strategy?

Can the gatekeepers, to extent that there are any, be relied upon, and their behavior predicted so that you can plan well in advance?
And what about the platform rules? Can you build something on top of the platform that itself can be changed into a platform?

Having solid answers to these question maybe more important than you expect. If you choose the wrong platform to build on, the future of your business may be limited from the start.