Sunday, August 13, 2006

The Long Tail

My reading material to while away my time while traveling this week included The Long Tail by Chris Anderson.  You can get it here at Barnes & Noble.  This is an important book.  I think that it is well worth the time to read it.  I was able to finish it on a single hop from Minneapolis to Seattle (but your mileage may vary).

I can summarize Anderson’s arguments as follows:

  • Technology (and particularly digital technology) is constantly driving down the cost of production.  For example, I am writing this blog with BlogJet to post on Blogger using a computer that is already a sunk cost.  The total cost (excluding my time) is well under $100.
  • Technology (and again critically digital technology) is constantly driving down the cost of distribution.  Using the same example as above, my words are going out to what is potentially a very wide audience for almost no additional variable cost.
  • Technology (ditto) is also making it much easier to connect supply and demand.  Google and Amazon’s “you might also want to think about this book” make it much easier to find things that are of interest.

Chris Anderson has a web site which deals with the general ongoing discussion and development of this concept.  I have just begun to look at this web site so I can’t say anything in the way of recommendations.

Other than just being generally aware of what’s going on in the world, the concept of the long tail is important with respect to the business of designing, developing and delivering software.  In a very real sense, we are developing the tools and weapons of the revolution.  While digital technology is not the only factor in creating the “long tails” in this world (read the book to find examples), it is the technology that is being used today.  What is more interesting to me is the possibilities of using these concepts to deliver software.  That is, rather than thinking about software as the enabling mechanisms for the long tail, we should be thinking about how the long tail affects the development of software.  Anderson has a number of entries in his web site about how Long Tail affects software development here and here

I’m not suggesting the Long Tail is going to change everything overnight, but it could.  I make my living by consulting and developing software for clients.  Not all of those projects are unique.  Part of what I do is to know about the capabilities of existing software packages, to select the appropriate software packages for my client, and to flesh out those packages to meet the specific needs of my client.  The concept of the Long Tail suggests that a lot of that work might potentially be automated in the future.  This means that I and people like me will have less demand for our services.  Outsourcing, particularly that which is performed overseas, is another artifact of the Long Tail.  and that is another factor in lessening the demand for services that I and others like me offer.  Have I got your attention yet?

Anybody who’s done anything significant amount of software development realizes that there are some significant barriers to the long tail concepts as applied to software development.  Building a software application of any kind of complexity is much different from buying a CD or book from online retailer.  The CD or book is a very crisp thing as compared to the typical software development project.  A substantial amount of the effort in a software development project is to figure out what the software is supposed to do.  And again, anybody who’s done this for any length of time, realizes that is perhaps the most difficult of all aspects of software development.  The vast majority of failures come from the failure to understand the true nature of the requirements for the project, in other words, “what we have here is a failure to communicate”. 

I have been building software for a very long time and I have survived by being aware of the influences on software development and trying to learn as much about them as I can.  For me, much of the joy of what I do comes from learning and applying new concepts and technology.  The Long Tail is just one more in a series of things that I think I have to master in order to continue to survive in this business.

Just thought you might like to know about this.



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