Pipes, Platforms, the Internet and Zero Rating

My friend Sangeet Paul Chaudary, who runs Platform Thinking Labs, likes to describe the world in terms of “pipes” and “platforms”. One of the themes of his work is that we are moving away from a situation of “dumb pipes”, which simply connect things without intelligence, to that of “smart platforms”. Read the entire Wired piece (liked above) to appreciate it fully.

So I was reading this excellent paper on Two-Sided Markets by Jean-Charles Rochet and Jean Tirole (both associated with the Toulouse School of Economics) earlier today, and I found their definition of two-sided markets (the same as platform business) striking. This is something I’d struggled with in the past (I admit to saying things like “every market is two-sided. There’s a buyer and a seller”), especially given the buzzword status accorded to the phrase, but it is unlikely I’ll struggle again. The paper says:

A necessary condition for a market to be two-sided is that the Coase theorem does not apply to the relation between the two sides of the markets: The gain from trade between the two parties generated by the interaction depends only on the total charge levied by the platform, and so in a Coase (1960) world the price structure is neutral.

This is an absolutely brilliant way to define two-sided markets. The paper elaborates:

Definition 1: Consider a platform charging per-interaction charges a^B and a^S to the buyer and seller sides. The market for interactions between the two sides is one-sided if the volume V of transactions realized on the platform depends only on the aggregate price level

a=a^B +a^S

i.e., is insensitive to reallocations of this total price a between the buyer and the seller. If by contrast V varies with a^B while a is kept constant, the market is said to be two-sided.

So for a market to be two-sided, i.e. for it to be intermediated by an “intelligent platform” rather than a “dumb pipe”, the volume of transactions should depend not only on the sum of prices paid by the buyer and seller, but on each price independently.

The “traditional” neutral internet, by this definition, is a platform. The amount of content I consume on Youtube, for example, is a function of my internet plan – the agreement between my internet service provider and me on how much I get charged as a function of what I consume. It doesn’t depend on the total cost of transmitting that content from Youtube to me. In other words, I don’t care what Youtube pays its internet service provider for the content it streams. Transaction costs (large number of small transactions) also mean that it is not practically possible for Youtube to subsidise my use of their service in this model.

Note that if buyers and sellers on a platform can make deals “on the side”, it ceases to be a platform, for now only the total price charged to the two matters (side deals can take care of any “adjustments”). The reason this can’t take place for a Youtube like scenario is that you have a large number of small transactions, accounting for which imposes massive transaction costs.

The example that Rochet and Tirole take while explaining this concept in their paper is very interesting (note that the paper was written in 2004):

…As the variable charge for outgoing traffic increases, websites would like to pass this cost increase through to the users who request content downloads…

..an increase in their cost of Internet traffic could induce websites that post content for the convenience of other users or that are cash-strapped, to not produce or else reduce the amount of content posted on the web, as they are unable to pass the cost increase onto the other side.

Note how nicely this argument mirrors what Indian telecom companies are saying on the Zero Rating issue. That a general increase in cost of internet access for consumers can result in small “poor” consumers to not consume on the internet at all, as they are unable to pass on the cost to the other side!

Fascinating stuff!

Coase

In the wake of the passing of Ronald Coase, two incidents, both professional. The first was with an established company to whom I suggested a partnership – they are in a space where I don’t have much skill, but have access to companies who I would love to sell to, and they don’t have my skill and our skills are complementary. So I reached out to them (through common contacts) suggesting that we could work together. They came back to me saying they would love to work with me, but would want me to join them as an employee.

The second was an incoming lead. This was a rather small company doing something similar to what I’m doing but with bigger ideas. They want me to join this “innovation hub” they are trying to create. This is a loose federation they are creating including professionals from various fields. Nobody is obliged to work full time for the hub, but this gives people an opportunity to get together and work together on projects where their respective expertise can combine well.

As the more perceptive of you who would have read every Coase obituary in the last two weeks would have figured out, the piece of work that Coase is most well known for is about the theory of the firm. The question is rather simple – why should you and I get together and form a firm if we have to work together, if we can remain independent and just come together for projects. The answer lies in transaction costs.

The advantage of coming together as a firm is that you negotiate only once. Let us suppose you are a graphic designer and I’m a data scientist. If we decide to work together on a visualization project, how do we decide how much you get and how much I get? We will need to negotiate. Let’s say we negotiate and agree on a price. And complete a project and split the spoils. What would happen the next time we were to bid for a project? We will need to negotiate again on how we will share the spoils.

If on the other hand we were to form a partnership firm, then for every project that we do, our respective share is fixed! Thus we don’t have to negotiate before every single projects. Thus, firms exist so that you don’t have to repeatedly negotiate.

However, there is a downside to this. What if I form a firm with a graphic designer, and then we see a significant opportunity in projects that involve a lot of analysis but little visualization? In that case, I have no use of my partner, and would loathe to pay him his share of the profits. Or consider if I were to somehow become much better at my job, while my partner stagnates. There is little I can do, for we’ve been locked in into the financial arrangement.

These are only some of the complications that arise when you need to decide whether you want to become a firm. I just thought it is pertinent that I’m having some of these dilemmas (employee versus consultant versus partner versus member of federation) in the few weeks after Coase’s passing.