The ‘First Mover Advantage’ May Be a Disadvantage

During the dot.com era one of the rationalizations for dot.com firms to be losing money was that they had to be the ‘first mover’ that would grab the demand-side economies of scale arising from network effects.
For a variety of reasons, including the clarity of hindsight, the current consensus if that profitability is always worth worrying about, and being first is far from a guarantee of success.
On the other hand, if the authors quoted below are correct that everyone should be a “fast follower,” then who will ever make the first move?
Maybe the problem lies in the metrics of success. Maybe the main measure of success lies in moving an important project forward, rather than being the one who ends up best positioned to monetize the advance?
So, for example, maybe those who built Netscape should be proud of what they did, even though Internet Explorer ended up dominating the market.
(I use “maybe” a lot above, not out of some rhetorical pose of modesty, but because these are issues that I am really grappling with.)

(p. R4) One of the fiercest rivalries in the information-technology world has long been over platforms–products that link users in networks, like iTunes for online music or Windows for computer operating systems. It’s often a winner-take-all business; platform leaders can earn huge profits as they tend to dominate markets with few serious competitors.

A myth, however, has attached itself to the history of platforms: that each platform’s originator has the best chance of dominating its market for years to come.
The truth is, that is rarely the case.
Instead of there being an advantage to being first, we found the opposite to be true. Most owners of leading IT platforms today did not create the markets they now rule. In almost all of the industries we studied, the current platform leaders introduced their products after a different company had already established the market with a platform of its own.
Out of the 15 platform industries that we studied, 14 of the current leaders began as followers in a market created by a competitor’s platform. In only one market, for integrated business software, was the original platform creator still the leader–SAP AG. Five were fast followers, which we define as the second, third or fourth company to enter a market. The other nine were later followers.

For the full commentary, see:
GEZINUS J. HIDDING, JEFFREY R. WILLIAMS And JOHN J. SVIOKLA. “Technology; The IT Platform Principle: The First Shall Not Be First .” The Wall Street Journal (Mon., January 25, 2010): R4.

Obama Delays Biotech Innovation

SeedApprovalDelayGraph2010-05-20.jpg

Source of graph: scanned from the print version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A8) The crop-biotechnology industry, growing frustrated as it watches the approval time for new seeds almost double under the Obama administration, is pressuring Washington to clear inventions more quickly.

The logjam at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which must clear genetically modified seeds, is slowing the launch of products that could give farmers more alternatives to seeds from crop biotech giant Monsanto Co.
Also, some biotech-industry executives worry the delays signal that the Obama administration, which has painted itself as pro-biotech, is gearing up for a far tougher analysis of the potential environmental impact of these crops, which could make it harder for inventions to reach the marketplace.
On average, a genetically modified seed takes 1,188 days to pass federal scrutiny, almost twice as long as in 2008, the last year of the Bush administration, according to the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a Washington, D.C., trade group.
“There is concern we might see other countries move ahead of the U.S.,” said Sharon Bomer Lauritsen, executive vice president of food and agriculture at BIO, who added that the delays “might stifle investment in what has been a very dynamic part of the U.S. economy.” BIO’s members include hundreds of companies such as DuPont Co., Syngenta AG and Monsanto, as well as academic institutions.

For the full story, see:
SCOTT KILMAN. “Biotech Firms Seek Speedier Reviews of Seeds; Approval Time for Genetically Modified Crops Doubles under Obama as Some Fear Tougher Stance; Feds Blame Logjam.” The Wall Street Journal (Weds., April 28, 2010): A8.

Electronics Projects Were Wozniak’s “Passion” and “Pastime” and “Reward”

(p. 127) I think most people with day jobs like to do something totally different when they get home. Some people like to come home and watch TV. But my thing was electronics projects. It was my passion and it was my pastime.

Working on projects was something I did on my own time to reward myself, even though I wasn’t getting rewarded on the outside, with money or other visible signs of success.

Source:
Wozniak, Steve, and Gina Smith. iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-Founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2006.

Farmers in India Like Wal-Mart

WalMartIndiaFarmer2010-05-20.JPG“Mohammad Haneef, [above], a farmer in Haider Nagar, said that Wal-Mart is better than his previous clients. “You have to establish trust,” he said in Hindi. “Wal-Mart has been paying on time. We would just like them to buy more.”” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below. (Note: bracketed word added.)

(p. B1) HAIDER NAGAR, India — At first glance, the vegetable patches in this north Indian village look no different from the many small, spare farms that dot the country.

But up close, visitors can see some curious experiments: insect traps made with reusable plastic bags; bamboo poles helping bitter gourd grow bigger and straighter; and seedlings germinating from plastic trays under a fine net.
These are low-tech innovations, to be sure. But they are crucial to the goals of the benefactor — Wal-Mart — that supplied them.
Two years after Wal-Mart came to India, it is trying to do to agriculture here what it has done to industries around the world: change business models by using its hyper-efficient practices to improve productivity and speed the flow of goods.
. . .
(p. B3) Here in Haider Nagar, in the bread basket state of Punjab, farmers who supply vegetables to Wal-Mart say they like working with the company. It typically pays them 5 to 7 percent more than they earn from local wholesale markets, they said. And they do not have to pay to transport produce because Wal-Mart picks it up from their fields.
Abdul Majid, who sells cucumbers to Wal-Mart, says his yields have risen about 25 percent since he started following farming advice about when to apply fertilizers and which kinds — more zinc, less potash — from the company and its partner, Bayer CropScience.
Mohammad Haneef, a farmer in a nearby village, said he had sold to two other companies before Wal-Mart, but one shut down and the other cheated him and paid him late. Wal-Mart is much better, he said, but its buyers are picky, taking the best vegetables and leaving him with inferior ones that he still must truck to wholesale markets.
“You have to establish trust,” he said in Hindi. “Wal-Mart has been paying on time. We would just like them to buy more.”

For the full story, see:
VIKAS BAJAJ. “Cultivating a Market in India; Wal-Mart Nurtures Suppliers as It Lays Plans for Expansion.” The New York Times (Tues., April 13, 2010): B1 & B3.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the review is dated April 12, 2010 and has the title “In India, Wal-Mart Goes to the Farm.”)

Economics Is More Like Biology than Physics

(p. A13) If economics is a science, it is more like biology than physics. Biologists try to understand the relationships in a complex system. That’s hard enough. But they can’t tell you what will happen with any precision to the population of a particular species of frog if rainfall goes up this year in a particular rain forest. They might not even be able to count the number of frogs right now with any exactness.

We have the same problems in economics. The economy is a complex system, our data are imperfect and our models inevitably fail to account for all the interactions.
The bottom line is that we should expect less of economists. Economics is a powerful tool, a lens for organizing one’s thinking about the complexity of the world around us. That should be enough. We should be honest about what we know, what we don’t know and what we may never know. Admitting that publicly is the first step toward respectability.

For the full commentary, see:

RUSS ROBERTS. “Is the Dismal Science Really a Science? Some macroeconomists say if we just study the numbers long enough we’ll be able to design better policy. That’s like the sign in the bar: Free Beer Tomorrow.” The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., FEBRUARY 26, 2010): A13.

Mob Museum Financed from Local, State and Federal Tax Dollars

LasVegasOldFedCourthouse2010-05-19.jpg“The $42 million museum has been financed through a series of state, federal and local grants. It is set to open next March.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. 4) The idea for the Las Vegas Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement was seeded when the city bought the 1933 federal courthouse and post office from the federal government for $1 in 2002, with the strict understanding that the building — one of the oldest in Southern Nevada — be used for cultural purposes.

For much of the middle of the last century, organized crime ruled the Strip, developing and managing an array of casinos, skimming their way to success. Federal prosecutors put an end to their reign in the 1980s. The city determined its historical relationship to organized crime — and the role the courthouse played in it — made the site a perfect fit.
. . .
The $42 million project has been financed through a series of state, federal and local grants, and the work has progressed a bit glacially as money has trickled in.
The project, once listed as one that could stimulate this city’s embattled economy, was attacked by Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, when city officials suggested that it might qualify for federal stimulus money.

For the full story, see:
JENNIFER STEINHAUER. “‘2 Mob Museums in Las Vegas, Ready to Go to the Mattresses.” The New York Times, First Section (Sun., April 25, 2010): 1 & 4.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the article is dated April 24, 2010 and has the title “Vegas Mob Museums, Set to Go to the Mattresses.”)

Scientific Calculators Creatively Destroyed Slide Rules

(p. 120) I’d been a slide rule whiz in high school, so when I saw the calculator, it was just amazing. A slide rule was kind of like a ruler– you had to look at it precisely to read the values. The most accurate number you could get was only three digits long, however, and even that result was always questionable. With a calculator, you could punch in precisely the digits you wanted. You didn’t have to line up a slider. You could type in your numbers exactly, hit a button, and get an answer immediately. You could get that number all the way out to ten digits. For example, the real answer might be 3.158723623. An answer like that was much more precise than anything engineers had ever gotten before.

Well, the HP 35 was the first scientific calculator, and It was the first in history that you could actually hold in your hand. It could calculate sines and cosines and tangents, all the trigonometric and exponential/logarithmic functions engineers use to calculate and to do their jobs. This was 1973, and back then cal-(p. 121)culators–especially handheld calculators–were a very, very big deal.
. . .
There was no doubt in my mind that calculators were going to put slide rules out of business. (In fact, two years later you couldn’t even buy a slide rule. It was extinct.) And now all of a sudden I’d gotten a job helping to design the next generation of these scientific calculators. It was like getting to be a part of history.

Source:
Wozniak, Steve, and Gina Smith. iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-Founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2006.
(Note: ellipsis added.)