After studying this section you should be able to do the following:
- Identify the three primary sources of value for network effects.
- Recognize factors that contribute to the staying power and complementary benefits of a product or service subject to network effects.
- Understand how firms like Microsoft and Apple each benefit from strong network effects.
The value derived from network effects comes from three sources: exchange, staying power, and complementary benefits.
Facebook for one person isn’t much fun, and the first guy in the world with a fax machine didn’t have much more than a paperweight. But as each new Facebook friend or fax user comes online, a network becomes more valuable because its users can potentially communicate with more people. These examples show the importance of exchange in creating value. Every product or service subject to network effects fosters some kind of exchange. For firms leveraging technology, this might include anything you can represent in the ones and zeros of digital storage, such as movies, music, money, video games, and computer programs. And just about any standard that allows things to plug into one another, interconnect, or otherwise communicate will live or die based on its ability to snare network effects.
Exercise: Graph It
Some people refer to network effects by the name Metcalfe’s Law. It got this name when, toward the start of the dot-com boom, Bob Metcalfe (the inventor of the Ethernet networking standard) wrote a column in InfoWorld magazine stating that the value of a network equals its number of users squared. What do you think of this formula? Graph the law with the vertical axis labeled “value” and the horizontal axis labeled “users.” Do you think the graph is an accurate representation of what’s happening in network effects? If so, why? If not, what do you think the graph really looks like?