platform, ecosystem, envirnomentPlatform, ecosystem, environment: people selling technology often use these words.

Almost everything in the tech world is one of the three.

Some are all three. Hence: the Windows platform; Windows ecosystem and Windows environment. Are they the same thing are are they each different? Likewise Apple, Android, AWS and so on.

The words are a problem because they are non-specific, even ambiguous. They rarely help good communication.

Often you can replace one of these words with thing and the meaning doesn’t change.

Platform; redundant, used badly

Or you can remove the word altogether. Usually Windows, Apple and Android are good enough descriptions in their own right for most conversations.

The other problem is that the words are used interchangeably. People often talk about the Windows platform when they mean the ecosystem.

There are times when you can’t avoid using platform or ecosystem. That’s not true with environment, the word is always vague or unnecessary.

Ben Thompson offers great definitions of platform and ecosystem in The Funnel Framework:

A platform is something that can be built upon. In the case of Windows, the operating system had (has) an API that allowed 3rd-party programs to run on it. The primary benefit that this provided to Microsoft was a powerful two-sided network: developers built on Windows, which attracted users (primarily businesses) to the platform, which in turn drew still more developers. Over time this network effect resulted in a powerful lock-in: both developers and users were invested in the various programs that ran their businesses, which meant Microsoft could effectively charge rent on every computer sold in the world.

An ecosystem is a web of mutually beneficial relationships that enhances the value of all of the participants. This is a more under-appreciated aspect of Microsoft’s dominance: there were massive sectors of the industry built up specifically to support Windows, including value-added resellers, large consultancies, and internal IT departments. In fact, IDC has claimed that for every $1 Microsoft made in sales, partner companies made $8.70. Indeed, ecosystem lock-in is arguably even more powerful than platform lock-in: not only is there a sunk-cost aspect, but also a whole lot more money and people pushing to keep things exactly the way they are.

Thompson then goes on to discuss why platforms and ecosystems are no longer as important as they were in the Windows era. His point is that in the past owning the platform and ecosystem was the key to sales success, today being the best product or service for a consumer’s needs is more important.

And that is great news for users.

Rules number four and five in my Writing for the web in 300 words say:

Learn grammar. Forget what teachers said about long words making you look smart. It isn’t true. Instead use simple words, grammar and sentences. It is harder to go wrong.

Finding simple words isn’t always easy, especially when you are in a hurry.

A thesaurus helps. I sometimes use Microsoft Word’s thesaurus when I’m stuck. There are online thesauri and, whisper this because I’m now a paperless journalist, there are two on my bookshelf at home.

And then there is Ironic Sans’ Thsrs.

Thsrs is a short word thesaurus designed to help Twitter users find shorter words to fit inside the 140 character limit. Thsrs is a great tool for digging out a simpler, easier-to-read alternative, option, choice.

Helen Sword’s Wasteline Test is another useful tool to tighten your writing.

Winston Churchill said: “Broadly speaking, the short words are the best, and the old words best of all.”

He was right.

Short words are best because they don’t get in the reader’s way. They are familiar.

This makes them easy to understand and easy to spell.

They are also easier to pronounce

Most short words in modern English come from Anglo-Saxon, not Latin, roots.

They mainly describe real-world objects and actions, not abstract concepts.

Short words get straight to the point.

I hate the term platform in technology writing. Writers use the word in a vague hand-waving way to refer to a piece of hardware or software, or both.

Like ‘thing’ the word comes in useful when the writer means to avoid precision.

Platform is also used as padding to make the subject sound more important. For example, there are writers who think “the Windows platform” somehow trumps “the Windows operating system” or even plain old “Windows”.

Likewise “the Intel platform”, or any other variation.

Environment too

The same is true ‘environment‘. To me an environment is a pond with frogs hopping around. A rain forest is an environment.

To describe an operating system as an environment is pompous, wordy and just poor communications.

I can accept Windows being described as ‘software’, the word is accurate, if not precise. We can shorten operating system to OS when communicating with more tech-savvy readers.

There are people who think Apple’s tightly knit combination of software and hardware qualifies as a platform or an environment – though often people who use one term will use both to mean exactly the same thing. It isn’t the same thing, the two words have distinct meanings.

In the real world software neatly integrated with hardware adds up to a first class computer.

If you want to talk about what goes on in the world of Apple computers, say so, be precise, be accurate, call it an Apple computer. That’s a perfectly respectable term. It is unambiguous.

Good writing is clear, concise and unambiguous. “Platform” and “environment” fail on all three counts.

Acronyms are words formed from a series of initial letters or parts of other words: Such as:

IBM, BBC, Unesco, WHO, Anzac, laser, radar

Acronyms can make text simpler, easier to read and understand – life would be harder if you had to write light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation every time you  refer to a laser.

Spell an acronym out in full the first time you use it unless you are writing for a specialist audience and the term is instantly familiar. I prefer to write the full term, followed by the acronym thus:

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco).

Others like to write the acronym, followed by its full title in brackets. Both are equally correct, it is  a matter of editorial style.

If an acronym is confusing, don’t use it.

Some style guides allow acronyms written with full stops (or periods) between each letter or segment. I disagree.

Likewise, there are those who think acronyms should always be written in capital letters. Again I disagree. In both cases the result is both inelegant and distracting.

You’ll notice in the examples above, I’ve written some acronyms in capitals, some with an initial capital and some in lower case. Here’s why:

  • When you pronounce the acronym as a string of letters, ie eye, bee, emm for IBM the computer company, write the word in capitals. Some people call this type of acronym initialism.
  • If the acronym is a word and spoken as a word, then treat it as a normal word with an initial capital if it is a proper noun. Otherwise with a lower case initial letter.
  • Some American newspapers automatically use an initial capital followed by lower case if the acronym had more than six letters.

One difficulty is deciding whether to use a or an before an acronym. The important thing is how it sounds when spoken.

Certain acronyms were deliberately designed from the outset as pronounceable words. For example, Action on Smoking and Health (Ash).

The Economist Style Guide offers good advice:

…try not to repeat the abbreviation too often; so write the agency and not the IAEA, the Union and not the EU, to avoid splattering the page with capital letters. There is no need to give the initials of an organisation if it is not referred to again.