13
Microcomputer Platforms
Competition in Software

Thomas Cottrell

The rapid development and adoption of microcomputer technology is one of the great success stories of the latter half of the twentieth century. Barely invented by 1945, the electronic computer has become a vital tool for both work and leisure as the century closes. Computing technology that was once the esoteric domain of only a few highly skilled technicians has become both broadly accessible and widely used, in part due to the precipitous drop in price that has made computer hardware more widely affordable, as well as the dramatic improvements in software design that have made the technology easily accessible. The microcomputer hardware segment of the computer market has seen a significant share of this growth, and software firms have greatly profited from it. Success stories of overnight riches falling to small technology start-ups such as Lotus, Microsoft, and Corel have only added to the stature of the microcomputer software industry. Many software companies are known for creating wealth not just for a few key people, but for hundreds and, at least for Microsoft, thousands of employees. Even early entrants, who might widely be considered visionaries, by far underestimated the eventual size and significance of the microcomputer software industry. In the popular press, at least, the software industry exemplifies the classic Horatio Alger story of great riches from hard work, determination, and perseverance. But a popular account misses important aspects of the fundamental economics of competition in the microcomputer software industry. Although some products became extremely profitable, the path to success was often both hazardous and problematic. Perhaps more important, in an environment where some earned great riches, many found little profit despite technically sound and, in some cases, more competitive products. Firms who were able to prosper appear to demonstrate, either through luck or skill, an understanding of several important points from economic theory as they relate to this industry. Recent developments in economic theory have contributed greatly to our understanding of the nature of competition in the microcomputer software industry. Several of these developments provide key insights on competition, and it will prove useful to review them before proceeding to traditional measures of industry performance. The first topic, which is explored in the section following this introduction, is the effect of one consumer's decision on other potential purchasers in the market for a

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