Why user experience and ecosystem will rule the cloud

Over the course of the last year or two, one key, fundamental rule of succeeding in the cloud computing business has become exceedingly clear: If you want to define and control any aspect of the cloud marketplace, you need to succeed at user experience and ecosystem. This is something that Amazon Web Services and Cloud Foundry clearly understand, and they’ve flourished as a result.

Experience: more than just a pretty face

By experience, I mean the combination of relative simplicity of use, with the power and flexibility to solve a wide range of problems. Experience is not just traditional user interface issues, like simple, intuitive screens and so on. In fact, I’d argue that user interfaces don’t have to be exceptional at all.
However, great cloud experiences also include solid programming interfaces (if you intend to allow developers to integrate or extend your service) and human interfaces with your business itself, such as discovery, sales, support and documentation.
Breadth of service offerings, if done well and integrated, can also seriously enhance overall experience. Adding data management, integration, automation and management services to basic infrastructure services is now a cost of entry for the lucrative developer market.

Ecosystem: Getting the market to build your value

By ecosystem, I mean serving three primary categories of partners:

  • The customers themselves, who feed back information about the service and related experiences.
  • Vendors, projects, and individuals who extend or enhance your service to enable different solution options.
  • Expertise partners, such as system integrators, resellers, and even analysts and evangelists that identify opportunities to apply your service to specific problems and/or execute and operate those solutions.

Ecosystems are important because they extend the ability of your service to address the needs of a broader range of customers — without having to take all of that work on yourself. Yes, a good ecosystem will drive you to enhance your service to meet integration and extension needs, and you may also find yourself competing with successful members of your ecosystem at times.
However, from the customer’s perspective, you’ll only appear to be a safer bet than the competition as a solution to multiple business problems. Ecosystems also create marketplaces where customers feel comfortable that they can shop for, and find, solutions that generally work with their existing portfolio.
The best companies in the cloud are those that address these two categories of problems as priorities and, for the most part, build their brand around them. I am going to use two of them to prove my point. Their longevity is, I think, pretty well established, and I’ll argue that these two focus areas are key reasons why.

Amazon Web Services: The pioneer

The history of Amazon Web Services is well known at this point: it released the S3 storage service in 2005 and added EC2 computer services in 2006. After that, it quickly grew its portfolio of services, and continues to do so today.
But what is often overlooked in this history is the incredible experience that AWS created, especially relative to the hosting companies it initially competed with. It was (and is) incredibly easy to business with AWS — services generally work as advertised, can be purchased a number if different ways and have tons of “freebies” designed to make it easier to adopt the AWS portfolio.
Services are also well documented, community support is plentiful, and there are a large number of tools and services built by third parties to solve a variety of problems. Despite competing with its own ecosystem at times, Amazon has admirably nurtured one of the best ecosystems in cloud computing.
Compare that to pretty much every hosting company out there today. The service selection is limited, there is almost nothing provided as an incentive to adopt the services, and the ecosystems are comparatively weak and under-nurtured. Not to mention the fact that most hosting company services are still built to control the relationship with the customer, rather than freeing prospects to experiment at will.

Cloud Foundry: PaaS as experience and ecosystem

One other cloud story that I think gets the importance of experience and ecosystem is the open source platform-as-a-service project Cloud Foundry and its principle vendors, such as Pivotal and Active State.
As a project, Cloud Foundry was developed with ecosystem in mind; building and integrating new technologies and services into the platform is quite straight forward and a principle design consideration. As a result, Cloud Foundry has an impressive list of tools and services available for use when building and operating applications in the platform.
On the experience side, Cloud Foundry is designed to make building and deploying distributed applications extremely easy. That is one of the primary purposes of a PaaS, and it does it well. Is it the most amazing experience we will ever see in that regard? No, but it’s more than good enough.
Also, acquiring, deploying, learning and operating the platform gets easier with every release. As much effort as the project puts into the platform itself, the supporting tool set (including the BOSH deployment engine) gets plenty of attention. The result is that I consistently hear from developers that deploying Cloud Foundry is an excellent experience.

There are others, but…

A few other projects get these elements fairly well. Microsoft, for instance, is working hard to enable an ecosystem around Azure, which has a pretty good interface for software developers. Container-based computing vendor Docker has used open source communities to build an impressive interface and ecosystem around its core offering. If it plays its cards right, it could become a central company in software stacks of the next 10 years or more.
Others have one of these down pat, but have work to do on the other. Those companies tend to be strong cloud players, but lack the feedback loop that pushes extreme growth in cloud.
I think as an industry we are moving in this direction, but it’s early yet. Do you agree? Let me know in the comments below, or on Twitter where I am @jamesurquhart.
Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock user dotshock.