The Long Tail of Applications

I recently had a conversation with Ron Schmelzer of ZapThink and we started talking about how the nature of the entry point for enterprise users to interact with the information technology will change in the future. You’ll notice that I didn’t use the term “application” in that sentence and there’s a reason for that. Personally, I want to get rid of it. To me, it implies a monolith. It’s a collection of functionality that by its very nature goes against the notion of agility. When I look at a future state where we’re leveraging BPM, SOA, and Workflow technology, I see very small, lightweight entry points that are short and to the point. I’ve mentioned this before in connection with Vista Gadgets or MacOS X Dashboard Widgets.

Ron brought up a ZapFlash that came out over a year ago that he wrote called “SOA: Enabling the Long Tail of IT.” I didn’t make the connection at the time, but it makes perfect sense now. In the ZapFlash, Ron describes the “Long Tail” this way:

The Long Tail, a term first coined and popularized by Chris Anderson, refers to the economic phenomenon where products that are of interest to only small communities, and thus result in low demand and low sales volume, can collectively result in a large aggregate market. This large collection of small markets can significantly exceed the more traditional market that the most popular and high volume sales items can generate. For example, generates more business in aggregate from its millions of books that each only sell a few copies than they do from the top 100 best sellers that might each sell tens of thousands of units.
One quick way of summing up the Long Tail is by saying that thereís more opportunity in catering to a mass of niche markets than a niche of mass markets. Large enterprises in particular are composed of masses of such niches, operating in different geographies and business units, catering to specific demographics with tailored solutions to meet the needs of all constituents. And yet, the centralized IT organization that serves the needs of the entire organization is typically woefully unprepared to serve these masses of niches: large numbers of users with widely varying IT needs. How, then, can IT support the needs shared in common with all the business groups without overextending its centralized resource to meet the specific needs of each of the individual groups?

Fundamentally, we’re both talking about the same thing. What I describe as very lightweight user-facing entry points are the “long tail” of applications. They’re small, niche solutions that get the job done. Underlying all of this is a robust SOA that are the enablers of these solutions which is loosely-coupled from the user-facing needs. If you think about it, the long tail of application development today is the business user using Excel because they could get done what they needed quickly. I’ve even done this myself, and even progressed up to getting a simple database setup to do a bit more. We shouldn’t be on a quest to squash these out, but rather to figure out how to enable it in a manageable way. The problem is not that somebody’s Excel macro pulling data out of Oracle exists, the problem is that we’re not aware that it exists. Clearly, someone had a need to put it together, and if we can find a way to enable this to where we’re aware of it and our systems support it easily, even better. Personally, I think the technologies we have at our disposal today are on track for making this a reality.

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