Joe Kraus (co-founder of Excite, which is now a part of AskJeeves) has just written an exceptionally concise and easy-to-understand post on his blog about the Long Tail phenomenon even though he ends it with a marketing spin towards his startup, JotSpot. I’ve been thinking a lot about the Long Tail during the past few months because 1) it’s been on top of the Buzz Meter, and 2) while my new baby girl sleeps on my shoulder, I can’t really do much else. My feeling is that the Long Tail phenomenon has been around in the computer industry ever since the IBM PC came along circa 1980. The PC’s open hardware architecture became the Head for a Long Tail that has grown significantly to become what the PC hardware industry is today. In contrast, the Long Tail did not happen for the architecturally closed Apple Macintosh. I would argue that the Long Tail also existed and has grown greatly for the Microsoft software platform, which primarily consists of Windows (i.e. the operating system), the Windows API (for the Long Tail, this is more important than Windows itself) and now the .NET Framework, and Visual Studio (i.e. the application development tool). And the growth of that Long Tail accelerated in the mid- to late-1990s when Microsoft focused tremendous energy and resources towards its platform’s ISV community. A similar Long Tail has formed in the Open Source community for the Firefox browser via extensions. And another Long Tail is beginning to form for the Google Desktop Search via plug-ins.
So, what do all those examples have in common? As you’ve probably guessed, a (relatively) small head, a medium sized body, and an ever growing Long Tail. I wish I can use Microsoft Office as an example as well, but I really can’t because both the head (the Office core products: Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook) and the body (other products in the Office System: Access, Project, Visio) have become way too big. There is indeed a Long Tail for Office, and it was actually growing quite rapidly shortly after the release of Office 4.2, but now, much of that Long Tail has been sucked into the body. J Nevertheless, newly normalized APIs, Visual Studio Tools for Office, and a renewed effort via the Office Developer Center to grow the ISV community are starting to bring Office’s Long Tail back to life, but I believe that by so aggressively pursuing this strategy, Microsoft is missing a huge opportunity in growing the Long Tail for Microsoft Works. Yes, Microsoft Works, the almost orphaned product from several years ago that now has the enviable tagline, “Make the most of your Home PC.” The word “Home” is an important qualifier there because Microsoft obviously doesn’t want Works to cannibalize market share from Office, which has the appropriately worded tagline, “Helps organizations and their employees transform information into impact.”
I believe that this fear of cannibalization is unfounded because where will PC growth be in the next few years? Certainly, not in the enterprise. The growth will be in “lower-cost PCs in price-sensitive emerging markets” as forecasted by Gartner. If Microsoft provided an open and extensible API for Works, a “Visual Studio Tools for Works” development environment, and a “Works Developer Center”, I predict that the Long Tail will grow very quickly. Microsoft can still compete in the Long Tail by introducing optional features for on-demand purchase and installation via the Internet similar to what Apple iTunes has been providing for music. Sure, some (perhaps many) ISVs may build better optional features than Microsoft, but in the long run, the head and body remains with Microsoft even if the Long Tail belongs to the market, as it should.