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Jul 20, 2023 | 7 minute read

Unplatform: The Third (and Biggest) Wave of Commerce

written by Jamus Driscoll

commerce unplatform

Since the inception of eCommerce, it has been an industry of change like no other. By nature, it is a core enterprise system – peer to financials, ERP and CRM – with deep tentacles into the organization and wide-reaching impacts on the company and its operations. And yet, unlike those systems, eCommerce is the only enterprise system that directly touches the consumer. That unique position exposes it directly to consumer innovation cycles. And therein lies the rub; consumers bring their cumulative internet experiences – what delights and what does not – to every digital experience with a brand, which are powered by engines interwoven into the core of the business. The relentless advancement of buyers collides with the challenges of moving enterprise systems at a pace for which they were never intended. They are not in sync. That friction creates heat. And heat creates change. Lots of it.

As we look back over the evolution of digital technology, this collision is at the root of every major technology in commerce. DIY platforms couldn’t keep up, so we moved to packaged software platforms (Wave #1). Those couldn’t keep up so we moved to all-in-one SaaS platforms (Wave #2). And today the cycle continues.

Enter Wave #3.

Unplatform The Third Biggest Wave of Commerce Post Graphic 0

Perhaps the most profound and far reaching, this wave will be marked by an inevitability that we’re still struggling to speak out loud: The end of the “eCommerce platform.” That’s right: during this next evolution the commerce platform will cease to be a thing. It will evaporate and devolve into architectures of independent products – functions – each interoperable with the other, each generating value in their own right, each subject to focus decisions about whether to have a role moving forward. Weak functionality will not be safe simply because it’s embedded in a core commerce platform that’s too difficult to change. The third wave of commerce is different and it does not to the platform. It belongs to the Unplatform.

The Unplatform is defined simply as follows: a commerce architecture comprised of decoupled independent products, bound together to operate as a collective whole. In this environment, customers have freedom to design their architectures from best-in-class components – commercial or homegrown – to create architectures exactly to meet the unique needs of their business. Moreover, these architectures will be bound together by integration services that provide simplified ability to adopt, iterate, innovate and control a framework of heterogeneous services. It’s a have your cake and eat it too proposition; ability to select all the components and the ability to harness it all.

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Compared to traditional platforms (whether cloud/SaaS or licensed packaged), the Unplatform has several distinct advantages:

  • Choice: Customers have vast choices in the componentry. Today, there are entire companies devoted to what once were simple features of the platform. The innovation and advancements being made across all fronts are indeed breathtaking. Brands can – and should – take advantage of this.
  • Control: Digital leaders can assemble the architecture that speaks precisely to their distinctive brand experiences and strategies. Every business is unique and every brand wants to engage customers with tailored experiences. Yesterday, the choice was either conform your business to fit a platform, or roll your own. Today, the field is wide open. (As Jeff Lawson says, build or die).
  • Innovation: What businesses are really asking for is the ability to innovate specific aspects of the architecture WITHOUT disrupting everything. Up until now, the promise of real business innovation has been locked on the other side of a colossal replatforming project. To get where you want to go, you first have to risk everything and at great expense. That’s not a reasonable proposition and explains why the market abandons 70% of replatforming initiatives… only to restart them a year or two later. What the market really wants is the ability to innovate incrementally without risk to the whole. Perhaps this incremental innovation leads to the piece-by-piece replacement of the commerce platform, and perhaps not. What matters most is that progress is not held hostage. And that’s what the Unplatform offers.

If all this sounds similar to Composable Commerce, it is. The Unplatform is built on the premise of composability. Each element of the Unplatform operates independently and in and of itself provides unique value. However the Unplatform is not synonymous with Composable; it goes well beyond that in a few notable ways.

First, Unplatform does not demand an all-or-nothing approach. Too often, commerce platform vendors convince brands that to get innovation, they must first replatform. Rototill the infrastructure and start fresh. And over 20 years, the market has been conditioned to accept that as an unchallenged fact. That is false. In fact, as an industry we have come to know-and-not-speak this in small practical ways. The platform has weak search so we add a search engine. The platform has promotions that don’t fit the business? We roll our own. The platform has a poor tax engine? We buy another and integrate it. We see opportunity in one-click checkout, so we buy a cart service. All of this begs the obvious question: what is a platform anyway? Unplatforming simply extends this concept into the last holdouts of commerce: catalog, orders, accounts, and frontends. When one stops thinking of the platform as a big ‘thing,’ a world of incremental possibilities opens.

Second, while Composable is a wonderful and promising concept, it has been tone deaf to a particular customer reality. Going fully composable is hard. Why? Because while it provides the complementary – and in vast quantity – it fails to provide the underlying connective tissue that binds the components together to make them operate as a cohesive whole. It’s the same old issue with integrations, only this time, at an atomic level and in a mission-critical business application. That is why an Unplatform delivers an underpinning, a framework built for commerce that provides cohesive interoperability and performance management over the vast array of components. Unplatform provides the glue and puts ‘compose’ into composable.

As an industry, we have been on this journey for a long time, adding and advancing all of the components that revolve around and in the platform. Now we push into the platform itself. We thank the platform for what it did. But because it got us here, does not mean it will carry us forward. Time to bury the past with honor and move on.

What could Unplatforming mean for your business?

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