A fifth interesting case regarding the user vs. customer question is the business model of Sony’s game console, the Playstation. The users of the Playstation buy their console and in that sense they are customers. However, traditionally Playstation consoles are subsidized in order to make their price more affordable and attract as many users as possible to their game console platform.
Sony does this – and accepts losses on selling consoles – because their most lucrative user/customer segment lies elsewhere. It’s the game developers, who make the games for the Sony Playstation and who pay Sony a license fee for every single game sold. Hence, the more users/gamers Sony has, the more attractive it is to developers, the more games are made and sold, and the more license fees Sony pockets. In this sense, the user-base is a key resource to Sony and is its value proposition to game developers.
Skype is company that allows making calls over the Internet based on its proprietary software. It has over 500 million users. Of that only a tiny fraction are paying customers. However, in this case it is difficult to distinguish between users and customers, because they might be the very same people. For example, I use free software-based Skype-to-Skype calling all the time, but occasionally also buy so-called SkypeOut credits to make calls from my computer to international landline and mobile phone numbers. I am a (free) user and (paying) customer at the same time.
Regarding the “free user vs. paying customer question” Skype provides some even more interesting material. Skype’s free users are crucial to its success. One might think that the reason is to assure a decent revenue even with a small conversion rate from free to paying users. In fact, that is not the only reason.
Skype needs a large user base to assure good calling quality. Every call is routed through the Internet, from one user to another, based on so-called peer-to-peer technology. The more users Skype has, the better the calling quality. In fact, in that regard users are a key resource of its business model. And since Skype manages no network (because of the Internet-based peer-to-peer technology) it costs the company practically nothing to add on free users.