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Power winners – and losers

Dec 26, 20055 mins
Data CenterVoIP

Five columnists declare which vendors are rising and slipping in power.

Columnist Howard Anderson picks eBay/Skype among the powerful.

eBay/Skype: Giving the calls away for free

Let’s think inside the box for a change, understanding that communications is the Ultimate Reality-Distortion Universe, where assets are really liabilities, customers have loyalty so low that it can be measured in picoseconds, and every vendor yearns for yesteryear when there were real profits.

In this universe, the power winner is eBay/Skype. (“Howard, you are nuts as a bunny. EBay/Skype isn’t a carrier or even a technology equipment company, it’s a middleman.”) Let’s think this through. EBay paid $4 billion for a company with sales of $60 million that essentially gives its product away. Communications cost is now effectively zero. Consumers have figured out that if you are just technically conversant enough, you shouldn’t have to ever pay for communications again. Those are the early adopters of VoIP; eBay is betting that the whole system goes mainstream by 2007 and that all those eBay buyers/sellers will be using eBay/Skype.

But it goes even further. Can it make money where there is not money to be made? Yes, if you look at eBay as kind of a Google clone delivering some sort of advertising/communities to businesses that want to address them.

Which other companies will jump in? Players will include Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, even AOL – any that understand the “free with added features” concept.This is Ivan Seidenberg’s (Verizon CEO), Duane Ackerman’s (BellSouth CEO), Ed Whitacre’s (AT&T, formerly SBC, CEO), nightmare – a company that gives away its product and may even pay customers to call. And doing the same thing wirelessly!

Years ago, IBM invited me to address its management committee, a bunch of senior, balding, white guys who ran the place, along with Miss Ellie (Ellen Hancock). I suggested the day was coming when computing, storage, software and communications would be free. The committee responded as if I were a closet commie who should immediately retreat to Cambridge where my ilk came from. But have you figured out what your cost per MIP is today? Or what the open source movement does to software pricing? At the same price, each year, communications cost drops 66%, storage drops 50%, processing drops 45%. It’s all free, and free is very tough to compete against.

Let me say that again. Free is very hard to compete against. If you want directory assistance today, be prepared to pay $1.50 per call. But you really don’t do that much any more, do you? You go to and get exactly the same information for free. You, not someone in Bangalore, are the computer operator, and you barely notice the ad at the bottom. The switchboard makes money, you get information for free and the advertiser gets a shot at you. This is what eBay and others are up to.

A counterexample? Music: If you want free, be prepared to listen to 20 minutes of junk ads per hour . . . or go to iTunes at 99 cents per song . . . or satellite radio for $12.95 per month. Same with TV. The opposite of free is pay-per whatever. Choices, lots of them. If I am traveling to Vermont, I can buy a map at an Exxon for $4.95, I can get a route guide from MapQuest for free or I can use GPS and Bitching Betty (“Turn immediately left Howard, you idiot!”) for $200 per year.

More columnists views

Howard Anderson | Frank Dzubeck | Thomas Nolle | Mark Gibbs | Daniel Briere

VoIP isn’t new. Vonage raised all sorts of venture-capital money; 10 years ago I was skulking around a back alley in Tel Aviv, and I found one of the first VoIP companies. Its system was the ultimate kludge, but it worked. Today that solution is industrial strength, strong enough for eBay. The quality is fine, the technology is stable and communications is just another feature, like Google Maps. Communications, eBay says, can be packaged and delivered at essentially zero marginal cost – especially if you are willing to put up with bothersome ads or pass the litmus test as a true eBay-er. It is unlikely that those ads will be intrusive – sending you messages in the middle of your conversation, like suggesting male supplements while you are talking to a prospective date. But the cool guys at eBay (or Google/Yahoo/Microsoft) may note that you are talking to area code 312, and they might want to suggest a local flower merchant or a steak house or an airline that flies there. I know this is far beyond what eBay does today.

Let’s take this further. Let’s assume that you are a Platinum buyer/seller on eBay and would like free wireless communications and a state-of-the-art BlackBerry-like service. No problem, just move up to “Steroid” level – and you will be dealing in “eBay dollars,” sort of an e-currency that can be used to buy, sell or even trade – kind of like frequent flier miles but geared to your online world. Other companies could be American Express and Citibank. Communications cost has become and will become the ultimate giveaway, kind of like toaster ovens were two decades ago.

The losers are the existing carriers and then the wireless carriers. How about the arms merchants – the Ciscos, Motorolas, Lucents and Junipers of the world? No, in the short run, yes in the long run.

Who is left? Who will actually pay real money for communications? The poor, the old, the technologically challenged. The rich? Don’t be silly. The rich are very cheap, which is how they stay rich.

Anderson is senior managing director of Yankeetek, a Cambridge, Mass., venture incubator. He writes “Yankee Ingenuity” for Network World. He can be reached at

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