Friday, March 11, 2005

The Long Tail of Software

It's always gratifying when people independently grapple with the same ideas as you and come up with different perspectives. Even better is when this becomes a conversation such as the blogosphere can serve up and aggregators can monitor...

I've recently been ruminating about People, Processes and Things and so, I was immediately drawn to Joe Kraus, erstwhile of Excite and Jotspot founder, who delivers a wonderful essay and insightful presentation (PPT) about The Long Tail of Software. Read it for the concentrated insight and great care with which he makes his argument - borne of the practice he's gained pitching his company for the past few months.

Handwaving a bit here, he essentially takes on Barry Briggs' notion of The Decade of Process - anointing the primacy of processes in business, and adds the key insight of the necessity of lots of customization (since no two businesses do things the same way) and also that processes continually evolve. Then he melds it with one of the most successful memes in technology of the past year, The Long Tail concept, lovingly detailed in Wired, pondered in a blog and due, for a book, and triumphant tour ala Malcolm Gladwell or Jared Diamond real soon now.

Having seen great demos of Jotspot and the way it handles schema evolution, about the only thing missing in the product is an explicit addition of tagging and metadata ala del.icio.us for it to be buzzword nirvana. It's almost there. I'll try not to be too flippant nor indeed, something of an echo chamber, since I obviously think there's the kernel of a very powerful notion here. Annotating and customizing business processes seems to be an interesting space in today's software world.

Suffice to say that this bears attention especially since the venture capitalists haven't drenched this sector as yet. I'd hazard though, that a pitch like Kraus's could well be the spark that makes things combust, especially when there are so many memes to mine. The big integrators and consulting firms have long been in this space as have any of the platform vendors and they will be tenacious competitors. I'd hazard that Jotspot or SocialText are already keenly watched by those who do strategy and marketing, if only so that sales teams have a response ready for competitive bids.

For larger businesses, it has always been ease of integration with existing infrastructure that matters when it comes to purchasing decisions. The insight of the Long Tail though is that there are huge opportunities in targeting small and medium businesses, the kind that the big guys only pay lip service to. It's more than enough of a market even if you don't get the WalMarts. Incidentally, Paul Graham touches on this almost in passing recently.

All this of course is predicated on accepting the primacy of the "process" view of things, I've argued that the "people" view (communication and group-forming) might be another lucrative area to focus on, and a viewpoint potentially more exciting or motivating for developers. Tradeoffs like these are the stuff of engineers or historians, entrepreneurs or CEOs, however, have to bet on something.

Lastly, wearing my prediction cap, leverage will be everything in this oncoming scramble. Web-native software (i.e. software that is easily addressible and customized) will be the fastest mover in the space. The usabilty issues in evolving schemas and handling annotations are going to be the key differentiator. There should be lots of give-and-take in the software that ensues because real world processes are forgiving. There's always someone who knows how the process is meant to work no matter what the rulebook says. Our research folks and product development teams are going to be burning the midnight oil and that's a good thing. Kudos to Krause and others for the exhilarating glimpse of what is to come.

Like Miles Davis said, "I love tomorrow".

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