Two-Sided Network Effects: A Theory of Information Product Design
Marshall W. Van Alstyne
Boston University – Questrom School of Business; Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - Sloan School
September 29, 2010
Management Science, Vol, 51, No. 10, pp. 1494–1504, 2005
How can firms profitably give away free products? This paper provides a novel answer and articulates tradeoffs in a space of information product design. We introduce a formal model of two-sided network externalities based in textbook economics - a mix of Katz & Shapiro network effects, price discrimination, and product differentiation. Externality-based complements, however, exploit a different mechanism than either tying or lock-in even as they help to explain many recent strategies such as those of firms selling operating systems, Internet browsers, games, music, and video.
The model presented here argues for three simple but useful results. First, even in the absence of competition, a firm can rationally invest in a product it intends to give away into perpetuity. Second, we identify distinct markets for content providers and end consumers and show that either can be a candidate for a free good. Third, product coupling across markets can increase consumer welfare even as it increases firm profits.
The model also generates testable hypotheses on the size and direction of network effects while offering insights to regulators seeking to apply antitrust law to network markets.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 11
Keywords: Two Sided Markets, Network Externalities, Network Effects, Antitrust, Information Pricing, Cross-Subsidy, Freemium
JEL Classification: D4, D8, L0, L1, L2, M2
Date posted: July 27, 2008 ; Last revised: March 27, 2012