April 2012

Did Apple conspire with e-book publishers to raise e-book prices?  That’s what DOJ argues in a lawsuit filed yesterday. But does that violate the antitrust laws?  Not necessarily—and even if it does, perhaps it shouldn’t.

Antitrust’s sole goal is maximizing consumer welfare.  While that generally means antitrust regulators should focus on lower prices, the situation is more complicated when we’re talking about markets for new products, where technologies for distribution and consumption are evolving rapidly along with business models.  In short, the so-called Agency pricing model Apple and publishers adopted may mean (and may not mean) higher e-book prices in the short run, but it also means more variability in pricing, and it might well have facilitated Apple’s entry into the market, increasing e-book retail competition and promoting innovation among e-book readers, while increasing funding for e-book content creators.

The procompetitive story goes something like the following.  (As always with antitrust, the question isn’t so much which model is better, but that no one really knows what the right model is—least of all antitrust regulators—and that, the more unclear the consumer welfare effects of a practice are, as in rapidly evolving markets, the more we should err on the side of restraint). Continue reading →

Two weeks ago, I penned a column for Forbes about the astonishing rise and fall of BlackBerry (“Bye Bye BlackBerry. How Long Will Apple Last?”), which somehow became the most widely-read and retweeted thing I’ve ever written in my life. I argued that BlackBerry’s story — indeed, the story of the entire U.S. smartphone sector — is the living embodiment of Schumpeterian creative destruction. Joseph Schumpeter’s “perennial gales of creative destruction” are blowing harder than ever in today’s tech economy and laying waste to those who don’t innovate fast enough, I argued, and nowhere is that more true than in the smartphone sector. I noted how, just five years ago, “BlackBerry” was virtually synonymous with “smartphones” and was considered one of the tech titans that seemed destined to dominate for many years to come. But now the BlackBerry’s days appear numbered and its parent company Research In Motion Ltd. is struggling for its very survival.

But there’s another company that I ignored in that essay that was also perched atop the mobile handset hill for a long time: Nokia. Here’s the horrifying opening lines from a Wall Street Journal story today about the company (“Nokia Crisis Deepens, Shares Plunge“):

Nokia Corp., long the biggest name in the cellphone business, is scrambling to stay relevant in the smartphone age. On Wednesday the company warned things will get worse before they get better, saying that competitors are rapidly eating into its sales in emerging markets such as China and India. Nokia also said its newest phone in the U.S. had a software glitch that is preventing some users from connecting to the Internet, marring its attempt to fight into the world’s most important smartphone market. The company’s American depositary shares slid 16% to a 15-year low of $4.24 in New York. Its market capitalization now stands at $16 billion, down from $90 billion five years ago.

It gets worse from there. The article continues on to document Nokia’s gradual slide and notes that, “like BlackBerry maker Research In Motion Ltd., Nokia is trying to re-establish its relevance in a market dominated by Apple Inc.’s iPhone and Google-powered devices. Both Nokia and RIM are working on new devices they hope will make a splash, even as Apple and Android work on improvements of their own.”

To put into context how remarkable this rapid reversal of fortunes is, you need to try remember what life was like just five years ago: Continue reading →