A few years ago we heard a lot about "long tail" applications but not so much anymore. Are they an idea that's over?
I think the reason no one talks much about the long tail anymore is that long tail applications have been absorbed into what we do every day. In large measure, it's because application platforms like Force.com from Salesforce and various ecosystems like the Apple Store and the AppExchange -- and all the other ecosystem stores -- have been so successful.
Simply stated, the long tail refers to a bell curve stretching out in either direction. The area under a curve represents the population under study, and the fat area under a bell curve is where most of the population is and you can read the area under the curve as demand. Out at the long tail there is little demand, and that translates into greater risk for a software vendor trying to develop products for customers "out there."
Risk can best be interpreted as the possibility that building an application won't be enough to generate the revenues needed to pay the staff and keep the lights on. Long story short, that's why there are so many accounting and sales applications and so few apps directed at niche needs. It just doesn't make economic sense.
But if you lower the cost of doing business -- of developing and delivering apps -- through platform ecosystems, many more niches can be exploited because they suddenly become profitable. That's what things like the Apple Store and the AppExchange do, and that's also what iTunes does for many emerging recording artists.
For a small fraction of the usual cost of sales and marketing, you can place an app on one of these exchanges and sell it at a lower price point and still make money because the ecosystem puts you in direct contact with real buyers. Apps that cost less than five dollars could never be contemplated without the Apple Store, and some very sophisticated add-ons to Salesforce wouldn't exist if their vendors couldn't sell through the AppExchange.
So, the long tail is alive and well, and the number of available apps for very discrete business processes continues to expand with very little fanfare.
This was first published in February 2013