Last week we revisted our seminal analysis from 1996 of the 10 cent wireless minute plan (400 minutes for C$40) introduced by Microcell of Canada and came up with the investment theme titled “The 4Cs of Wireless”. To generate sufficient ROI wireless needed to replace wireline as a preferred access method/device (PAD). Wireless would have to satisfy minimal cost, coverage, capacity and clarity requirements to disrupt the voice market. We found:
- marginal cost of a wireless minute (all-in) was 1.5-3 cents
- dual-mode devices (coverage) would lead to far greater penetration
- software-driven and wideband protocols would win the capacity and price wars
- CDMA had the best voice clarity (QoS); pre-dating Verizon’s “Can you hear me now” campaign by 6 years
In our model we concluded (and mathematically proved) that demand elasticity would drive consumption to 800 MOUs/month and average ARPUs to north of $70, from the low $40s. It all happened within 2 short years; at least perceived by the market when wireless stocks were booming in 1998. But in 1996, the pricing was viewed as the kiss of death for the wireless industry by our competitors on the Street. BTW, Microcell, the innovator, was at a disadvantage based on our analysis, as the very reason they went to the aggressive pricing model to fill the digital pipes, namely lack of coverage due to a single-mode GSM phone, ended up being their downfall. Coverage for a "mobility" product trumped price, as we see below.
What we didn’t realize at the time was that the 4Cs approach was broadly applicable to supply of communication services and applications in general. In the following decade, we further realized the need for a similar checklist on the demand side to understand how the supply would be soaked up and developed the 4Us of Demand in the process. We found that solutions and services progressed rapidly if they were:
- easy to use
- usable across an array of contexts
- ubiquitous in terms of their access
- universal in terms of appeal
Typically, most people refer only to user interface (UI or UX) or user experience (UE), but those aren't granular enough to accomodate the enormous range of demand at the margin. Look at any successful product or service introduction over the past 30 years and they’ve scored high on all 4 demand elements. The most profitable and self-sustaining products and solutions have been those that maximized perceived utility demand versus marginal cost. Apple is the most recent example of this.
Putting the 4Cs and 4Us together in an iterative fashion is the best way to understand clearing of marginal supply and demand ex ante. With rapid depreciation of supply (now in seconds, minutes and days) and infinitely diverse demand in digital networked ecosystems getting this process right is critical.
Back in the 1990s I used to say the difference between wireless and wired networks was like turning on a lightswitch in a dark room filled with people. Reaction and interaction (demand) could be instantaneous for the wireless network. So it was important to build out rapidly and load the systems quickly. That made them generative and emergent, resulting in exponential demand growth. (Importantly, this ubiquity resulted from interconnection mandated by regulations from the early 1980s and extended to new digital entrants (dual-mode) in the mid 1990s). Conversely a wired network was like walking around with a flashlight and lighting discrete access points providing linear growth.
The growth in adoption we are witnessing today from applications like Pinterest, Facebook and Instagram (underscored in this blogpost from Fred Wilson) is like stadium lights compared with the candlelight of the 1990s. What took 2 years is taking 2 months. You’ll find the successful applications and technologies score high on the 4Cs and 4Us checklists before they turn the lights on and join the iOS and Android parties.
Fred Wilson's 10 Golden Principles