The Longest Tail

There has been a lot of buzz lately about how modern technologies are opening up long tail markets that were previously unprofitable to serve. At the Fifth International Ruby Conference, one of the most interesting sessions was Nathaniel Talbott’s talk about ‘long tail’ opportunities in software development.

His main point was that as things like Ruby on Rails continue to reduce the cost of developing software applications, it becomes more and more feasible to write specific, tailored applications for very small markets (like a couple dozen people). I think he’s right. New, high-productivity technologies will, in fact, make it economical to develop software for smaller markets.

However, in our rush to embrace the long tail, we may be overlooking an even longer tail—the longest tail of them all. Chad Fowler hit on this in his post Is the Long Tail wagging the dog?. Many problems (most problems?) are so far out on the long tail that user couldn’t justify even talking to a software developer (or more likely, wouldn’t even think about it). The ‘Longest Tail’ is about enabling the user to provide his own solution.

Excel spreadsheets do this. Quick, spur-of-the-moment applications are possible with a spreadsheet. You don’t need to find a developer, you don’t need to plan or describe your needs, you don’t need to spend any money, you just need to do it. If what you did stops being good enough, you can fix it. Not only do you own the data, you own the solution as well!

Of course a spreadsheet can’t do everything. For its niche, though, its very good and it totally enables the user. Apple Computer’s HyperCard did the same thing for a wider class of software solutions.

To serve the Longest Tail, we need software than enables users to create their own solutions. Chad Fowler pointed out a new web application, Dabble, that aims to do this. I haven’t tried it yet, but I can’t wait to do so.

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