Thursday, 4 December 2008

The Long Tail Theory

In the Telco business we often talk about the long tail products/services illustrated in the following diagram.

The idea is that for a service provider to stay competitive, it has to deploy and experiment with a large number of products and see how they are accepted by the market. There will be a small number of popular ones and the rest will be less popular as indicated in the long tail. So, over time, the service provider will kill the proven unpopular products and replace them with new/other products. You may wonder, why do they bother with the long tail since they are not that popular anyway? There are two major reasons:

  1. The service providers are too paranoid not to provide those services because they want to stay competitive - anything that their competitors have, they also want it.
  2. Other long tail graphs replace the Popularity label with Revenue. It's not hard to see that the total area under the Long Tail curve (i.e. total revenue) could add up to an handsome amount.

How is this theory relevant to me? Well, being an IT professional, I am also paranoid about my knowledge and skills being stale. So I have to invest my time and effort on updating and expanding my knowledges constantly. With all these new technologies and frameworks popping up all the time, I feel like a headless chook all the time.

The best way to learn a new language/framework/library is to actually use it. 'Hello World' just doesn't cut it. Yet a full blown application such as Web Mail or Pet Shop may be too big or too long for the purpose of learning or proof of concept. That is why I have my own little pet project - Address (among others), which serves as the use cases for my learning and experimentation.

For the products that I like and feel useful in my work, I will keep them in my toolbelt and probably move them up to the head. For the ones that are irrelavent to me, I drop them from the Long Tail picture altogether. There are also products that have died (e.g. Orion Server) or dying and being replaced by others (e.g. GWT-Ext) in the game of evolution. But it does not mean that my time spent on them were wasted. I still learn and accumulate a great deal of experiences so that when I encounter a new product, I can always draw on these experiences and view it in a better light.

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