What Is a Platform in Computer Terminology?

by Scott Shpak
Close-up of a hand inserting a chip onto a computer motherboard

Close-up of a hand inserting a chip onto a computer motherboard

Imagine a computer platform as the foundation of a skyscraper. You can build straight up upon each platform, but building laterally is difficult. While the term originally applied to hardware, many other computer elements are now described as platforms.

The Nuts and Bolts

Central processing units define hardware platforms, since all communication to and from a CPU must be in the binary machine language of that chip. The x86 chip platform is most often associated with Windows-based personal computers, while the Motorola 68000 platform was synonymous with Apple until the release of OS X, which now runs on the x86 platform. Oracle's SPARC and IBM's mainframe S/360 and system AS/400 are other examples of unique hardware platforms.

The Operating Room

Operating systems are often associated with CPU chip sets, but as the x86 platform support for both Windows and Mac shows, operating systems themselves become a platform for software. The Unix platform is an operating system that is compiled in the machine language of many CPU groups, demonstrating further the distinction between hardware and operating system platforms. Effectively, operating systems work as translators between the software code and the code of CPU machine language, while processing user input according to the operating system's own rules.

The Soft Application

Consider how the x86 CPU, for example, supports Windows, Mac and Unix operating systems. Each operating system then branches off to the applications that run on that platform. A Web browser supports plug-ins designed to work exclusively with that browser. In that case, the browser becomes a platform, as third-party app developers create code for each browser. Some software may only support the Chrome platform, for example, while other programs are exclusive to the Internet Explorer or Firefox platforms.

The Chain of Tools

The hardware/operating system/application platform chain is common anywhere microprocessors are used. ARM processors (named after the British company who designed them) are the chips behind smartphones, tablets game consoles and netbooks, serving as the hardware platform supporting operating systems such as Android, iOS and the XBox platforms. Programs, applications and games for these devices may serve as a software platform for the development of exclusive plug-ins and applications.

About the Author

As an operations and technical projects manager in the photofinishing industry, Scott Shpak is also an experienced audio engineer and musician, as well as Editor-in-chief, feature writer and photographer for Your Magazines Canada.

Photo Credits

  • photo_camera Riccardo_Mojana/iStock/Getty Images