Information Complements, Substitutes, and Strategic Product Design

44 Pages Posted: 11 Dec 2000 Last revised: 1 Jan 2014

See all articles by Geoffrey Parker

Geoffrey Parker

Dartmouth College

Marshall W. Van Alstyne

Boston University – Questrom School of Business; Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - Sloan School

Date Written: November 8, 2000


Competitive maneuvering in the information economy has raised a pressing question: how can firms raise profits by giving away products for free? This paper provides a possible answer and articulates a strategy space for information product design. Free strategic complements can raise a firm's own profits while free strategic substitutes can lower profits for competitors.

We introduce a formal model of two-sided market externalities based in textbook economics -- a mix of Katz & Shapiro network effects, price discrimination, and product differentiation -- that leads to novel strategies such as an eagerness to enter into Bertrand price competition. This combination helps to explain many recent firm strategies such as those of Microsoft, Netscape (AOL), Sun, Adobe, and ID.

The model presented here argues for three simple and intuitive results. First, a firm can rationally invest in a product it intends to give away into perpetuity even in the absence of competition. Second, we identify distinct markets for content-providers and end-consumers and show that either can be a candidate for the free good. Third, a firm can use strategic product design to penetrate a market that becomes competitive post-entry. The model therefore helps to explain several interesting market behaviors such as free goods, upgrade paths, split versioning, and strategic information substitutes.

Keywords: free information, complements, substitutes, network effects, network externality, pricing, bundling, two-sided markets, two sided networks

JEL Classification: D4, L0, L1, L2

Suggested Citation

Parker, Geoffrey and Van Alstyne, Marshall W., Information Complements, Substitutes, and Strategic Product Design (November 8, 2000). Available at SSRN: or

Geoffrey Parker (Contact Author)

Dartmouth College ( email )

School of Engineering
Hanover, NH 03755
United States
603-646-9075 (Phone)


Marshall W. Van Alstyne

Boston University – Questrom School of Business ( email )

595 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston, MA 02215
United States
617-358-3571 (Phone)


Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - Sloan School ( email )

Initiative on the Digital Economy
245 First St, Room E94-1521
Cambridge, MA 02142
United States
617-253-0768 (Phone)


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