Steve Lohr of the NY Times posted an interesting article on the economics of Google and Microsoft. As usual the Network Effect was front and center in the analysis. Bill Gates gets his props as the foremost applied economist of the 20th Century. For those keeping score at home, that would be the last century. According to Lohr, Google lays claim to the 21st century. But it’s Lohr’s extension of the metaphors of hard and soft power that open some new areas for conversation.
Microsoft is associated with hard power combined with the network effect. The idea is that through proprietary formats and an operating system, Microsoft created a lock in that couldn’t be broken. You can check out any time, but you can never leave. Interestingly, Microsoft’s network effect was created without the Network. Dominance was enforced at the Enterprise and OEM level, most users never actually had to buy a Microsoft product.
Google is associated with soft power. Users are free to leave at any time, no proprietary formats are used, but ongoing usage creates a form of addiction. The network effect enables the large scale harvesting user gestures to create a learning machine that constantly adapts their algorithms. The result is the ongoing incremental improvement of the value of their software products delivered through the Network. Switching costs are low, but finding better value is difficult.
The internet has detached the user experience from Microsoft’s hard power, and Google has created a cash machine located firmly within the Network. Microsoft won the 20th century battle for hard power, but the 21st century’s battle is over soft power. The major players have to dominate without lock in, and Microsoft is starting to pivot from hard power to soft power. The Yahoo play was part of that strategy, Live Mesh and Silverlight also move Microsoft up the stack to the level of the Network. To win in the soft power arena, you’ve got to play in the open and you’ve got to deliver more value. The other thing Microsoft needs is a source and engine for harvesting user gestures as an input to improving the value of the product.
The hard power metaphor is useful at looking at the lock in players that still have some dominance. The obvious move would be to look at the entertainment industry, but that game is largely over. It’s the Telcos that really still play hard ball with hard power. The iPhone is starting to break that lock as it floats above the telephony system and lets the Network dominate. Think about the raw usage percentages of the iPhone, how much telephony, how much Network? The big lie that the Telcos need you to believe is that voice data is special. They need to distract you from the fact that the Network is getting more and more real time and delivers multiple media types for a lower cost.
But the Telcos are safe until the internet identity problem is solved. Today you’re identified by a phone number. Tomorrow it may be OpenID or CardSpace, but you won’t need that phone number anymore. When the hard power war is over in that space, a huge wave of innovation will be unleashed. And you might be surprised about who’s leading that charge…