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Aug 1, 2023 | 3 minute read

Commerce Sails On the Ship of Theseus

written by Jamus Driscoll

“The Ship of Theseus is a thought experiment about whether an object which has had all of its original components replaced remains the same object. According to legend, Theseus, the mythical Greek founder-king of Athens, rescued the children of Athens from King Minos after slaying the minotaur and then escaped onto a ship going to Delos. Each year, the Athenians commemorated this by taking the ship on a pilgrimage to Delos to honor Apollo. A question was raised by ancient philosophers: After several centuries of maintenance, if each individual part of the Ship of Theseus was replaced, one at a time, was it still the same ship?” –Source: Wikipedia

Recently, Elastic Path introduced to the commerce platform market the concept of the Unplatform. The Unplatform is defined simply as follows: a commerce architecture comprised of independent products bound together to operate as a collective whole. In this environment, customers have the freedom to design their architectures from best-in-class components-commercial or home-grown to create architectures exactly to meet the unique needs of their business. Moreover, these architectures will be bound together by integration services that provide a simplified ability to adopt, iterate, innovate, and control a framework of heterogeneous services.

The conclusion of this train of thought is the question: What is the commerce platform anyway? At the end of this journey, does the platform cease to exist? It’s a Ship of Theseus debate, and it’s happening right now.

The commerce platform you licensed has weak search, so you replaced it with a search engine. Do you still have a commerce platform?

You injected a PIM into your platform because the catalog could not cope with the complexity of your business. Do you still have a commerce platform?

You replaced the frontend because it specified a rigid and inflexible customer experience (we see you Salesforce Commerce Cloud). Do you still have a commerce platform?

You replaced a promotion engine with a homegrown system because the platform could not handle your unique requirements. Do you still have a commerce platform?

The answer is no, you do not. You have an Unplatform. The Ship Of Theseus debate among philosophers (armchair or otherwise) rages: When does a thing cease to be the same thing when all of the units are replaced? The most persuasive argument on this is that it is still the same thing if and only if the original intent remains true. For instance, the Ship of Theseus remained the Ship of Theseus even after all of its parts were replaced over centuries precisely because it remained a ship operating on the same mission.

This is not true for the commerce platform. The changes that are happening here stem from the fact that its mission has changed. The commerce platform was conceived and built for a singular purpose: running websites with prescribed business processes embedded into the core. Once those processes are changed, as is needed to meet business requirements, it ceases to be a commerce platform. Once the frontend was replaced because it could not deliver the consumer experience demanded, it ceased to be a commerce platform. Once the platform was extended to meet omnichannel requirements and not just the traditional website, it ceased to be a commerce platform.

The rise of API-first companies, which offer incredible depth in single features, offers a vast choice of componentry. Odds are, you have adopted several of them, so you are, in fact, sailing on a Ship of Theseus. As to whether you are still operating a commerce platform, you have to answer the following for yourself: what is the intent of all these changes?