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Do you remember your first kiss? This is how advocates for the first-mover advantage articulate their arguments. Going by the analogy, supporters of first-mover advantage theory will tell you that you do remember your first kiss, but you don’t recall the second, the third, or possibly even the last one. The conclusion is that you need to be the first if you want to be remembered forever. According to the analogy, therefore, you need to be first in launching 5G.

But the reality is that most people have moved on and probably do not think about the first person they kissed. It might be true that it is a memorable moment, but for some people it might even be a memory of someone they’d rather forget!

First-mover advantage is an excellent theoretical framework, but in practice it does not work. According to an Ovum study (GLB007-000092), in the real world there is also a first-mover “disadvantage,” and moreover, being first is a non-essential step for many of the significant efforts needed to launch 5G.

Looking back at the performance of first movers will help to understand why being first can be a risky business. Let’s look at three very different companies: Three UK, a first-mover on 3G; Apple, a late mover on 3G; and EE, a first mover on 4G. The success or otherwise of these three companies demonstrate that being first is not always the best thing to do.

Three UK claims the credit for having been the first to launch 3G and video calling in the UK, but they are still suffering as a result of it. Despite the incredible rise of network performance and overall net promoter score (NPS), Three is remembered by many as the cheap company with the unreliable network. Both memories are untrue when compared to today's reality, but many consumers do remember Three UK as their first 3G "kiss."

Apple is notoriously not a first mover. The first iPhone was launched in 2007, and that was a 2G (GPRS and EDGE) phone; Apple launched 3G about four years after Nokia launched theirs. Not much needs to be said about Apple’s extraordinary success other than that they are they are the first publicly traded company to hit $1tn market capitalization 10 years or so later. By contrast, Nokia’s story is not a happy one.

EE offers a good case study for the promoters of first-mover advantage. EE was the first, and they are still benefitting from it. But they did much more than just being first: in short, they did it right. That means that they fulfilled the promise of providing a materially better experience to customers willing to pay a little bit more for something that was not available (for several months) from anyone else.

As reductive as it might sound, being first is potentially a good move because it can generate some good PR, but doing it right is far more critical for companies willing to establish themselves as the long-term beneficiaries of new technology such as 5G. Rushing into 5G without having prepared for it, and launching 5G without a robust follow-on investment plan, will turn it into a kiss of death rather than the start of a profitable long-term customer relationship.

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