For the many who read Evans and Schmalensee's previous collaboration, Invisible Engines: How Software Platforms Drive Innovation and Transform Industries, Catalyst Code offers both some expected elements and some new angles. Like in Invisible Engines, Evans and Schmalensee continue to treat themes relating "multi-sided" or "platform" businesses. Multi-sided or platform companies -- relabeled "catalyst" companies in this book -- are those that build businesses based on complex intersections of interests among various constituencies of third parties (partners, suppliers, customers). However, in Catalyst Code, while Evans and Schmalensee continue to describe some platform companies that involve the selling of software, the main focus of the book expands beyond software platforms to the broader application of disruptive multi-sided business models in various market contexts.
Even though I really enjoyed the dedicated focus on software platforms in Invisible Engines, I think that Catalyst Code benefits from the shift in emphasis to the broader thinking involved in crafting, implementing and extending "catalyst" business strategies. In some ways, Catalyst Code is less descriptive and more prescriptive in tone than Invisible Engines; I think that it is also a more immediately practical work for those who might want to consider applying some "catalyst" strategies in their own businesses.
Still, in a strange way, I must say that Catalyst Code was, at least for me, a less satisfying book than Invisible Engines. And I think that this is a good thing. At the conclusion of Invisible Engines, I think that one is apt to get the feeling, "well said: case closed." It's a book with a carefully laid-out thesis and ample examples of software platform companies that fit the model hypothesis. Indeed, Invisible Engines feels like a comprehensive survey of a common, though perhaps not previously well-highlighted, business phenomenon within the software industry.
On the other hand, Catalyst Code left me strangely discomfited and full of the kind of questions that one wants to have after reading a good book on corporate strategy. Questions like: which present generation Internet-oriented companies are really better catalyst companies (i.e., Microsoft vs Google), and which might be in the future (MySpace vs Facebook, Yahoo vs Wikipedia, eBay vs a re-invigorated Apple)? And beyond these questions, one can't help but ponder others about how trust (brand), style (marketing), and the right choice of community participants (who is included or excluded) might ultimately impact the business success, reputation, or longevity of various catalyst players. Provocative stuff.
In an age when Microsoft is investing hundreds of millions of dollars to purchase a miniscule stake in Facebook, I think Catalyst Code serves as a great gloss to the nightly business news. Perhaps it is that immediate relevance that makes the book so thought provocative. I found it a fun read for a serious business book.
On a final note, Catalyst Code is a deceptively quick read (at least much quicker than Invisible Engines). I'm probably not the world's fastest reader, and I still managed to finish Catalyst Code over three or four good nights of reading. The prose is very crisp, something too often lacking in many other business books these days.