March 13, 2005

The Long Trail

Unless you've been on safari for the past six months you've probably heard about Chris Anderson's Long Tail article that appeared in WIRED in October 2004. There's been much news about the subsequent book deal, the speaking engagements, the Long Tail blog . . . suffice to say, the Long Tail is now Big Business.

I'm not writing about the Long Tail. Right now, on the eve of the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference here in San Diego, I am thinking about the Long Trail. It's something I mentioned to Paul Kedrosky the other day, who then went and penned this. That got me thinking, ok, I should finally spent some time and post this Long Trail notion that's been stewing for a long time.

"Remix" is the theme of the conference. "Remix your hardware", "Remix your software", "Remix your web" . . . so beckon the animated slogans on the O'Reilly Conference site.

The thing about remixing is that it makes something new out of something old. The act of remixing itself is nothing new. Remixing even in media is nothing new. Remixing in music in particular. Maybe Larry Lessig only found out about remixes in the past few years, but mash-ups, remixes, all that stuff has been around for decades. The path hewn by the pioneers of remixing goes way back. It's a long trail.

[Come to think of it, the image at the top of this article is a blatant remix of the original Long Tail image that appeared in the WIRED article.]

So much of what we think is new is not. In computing technology, this is painfully true. Particularly if you were around and actually used the old technology (say, the PLATO system). Speaking of PLATO . . . seeing Ray Ozzie now reporting to Bill Gates . . . now there is a long trail story if there ever was one. Ray started out on PLATO in the 1970s, went on to build Lotus Symphony and then Lotus Notes, then built Groove . . . now absorbed by Redmond.

Jon Udell posting on Screencasting, as if it is the newest cool thing . . . old hat in the computer-based training world. A world, by the way, that has gone through many a relabel over the past 40 years: programmed instruction > computer-assisted instruction > computer-based education > computer-based learning > web-based training > e-learning. Same old thing, really.

Bloggers calling XMLHTTPRequest the rise of "Web 3.0" . . . . been there, done that. I'm glad to see websites using this new technology . . . as we head further into the future, we're finally catching up with the past (client/server applications, X-Window, anything pre-web that didn't have this pesky document-based architecture).

The Long Trail is about the unevenly-distributed future. Stuff that's coming on your radar today came on someone else's radar days, or weeks, or months, or years, or decades, ago. Stuff being presented at the ETech conference next week is for the most part remixes of work done over the past years to decades. This isn't necessarily bad, but it is interesting when the conference is called "Emerging Technology".

When Does Technolgy "Emerge?"
If we use the Long Trail graph, we might say that at some point on the far right, the technology is starting to "emerge" -- starting to be used by a significant number of people or organizations, but not yet a substantial number. Perhaps it's technology that is in the process of crossing the chasm. Perhaps that is what makes it notable.

But it's clearly not the only criterion considered by O'Reilly & Associates for its event lineup. There's a distinct rock-star syndrome going on with O'Reilly conferences that is a bit disappointing to me. So many of the scheduled speakers are former speakers, re-hashing, remixing old speeches that keep them busy on the lecture and blog circuit for months or years at a time.

I wish this weren't the case with the ETech conference. I wish there were a lot more unknowns speaking at the conference, about technology that's not yet on my radar. That is what I would find valuable. I suspect that the vast majority of attendees to ETech are people already, if not intimately, familiar with most of the topics and technologies being discussed the conference. There will be a lot of familiar faces there, which is nice. I wish none of them were speaking though. I wish all of the speakers had never spoken before at ETech or any other O'Reilly conference. In fact if I had my way, I'd say the deal with speaking at ETech is that you can't have spoken there before, at least on the same subject, but even then, probably not. I wish ETech were more like DEMO -- not similar in the way it does its frantic six-minute pitch sessions from seventy-odd unknown startup companies. But in the fact that most of the speakers are unknowns, presenting new things, different things, (often remixed things).

I go to a conference to learn. I want to go to ETech to find out what's new that I don't already know. Thanks to blogs and a saturation of news and technology websites, I know a lot of what's going on. But I know there are still tons of things I've not yet heard about. I wish ETech would be the place where these new things, finally emerging into the mainstream, get some limelight.

Remixed Mousetraps
Google wasn't the first search engine. Legends abound of how so many VC firms decided not to fund Google as there were too many search engines around already. But Google had a new approach, some very firm beliefs about design, simplicity, and user focus, and the service found a market and great success.

My own startup company is building what we too hope is a better mousetrap. It's a mousetrap like other mousetraps, which have been around forever. Others before us have built what they had hoped were better mousetraps. We've studied what they did, we've contemplated why they failed. Market timing, the availability of free software and cheap hardware, the wide adoption of protocols and standards . . . all kinds of factors suggest the market might be ready for a new mousetrap. We'll see.

Everything You Need Already Exists
There is a great old episode called "Arena" from the original Star Trek series, in which Captain Kirk is stolen right off the bridge of the Enterprise and deposited on a bleak planet of rocks, mountains, and precipices (strangely resembling San Bernadino, but I digress). He finds he's not alone: The Gorn, a reptilian alien captain of an enemy spaceship, is also there. They've both been put there by an alien race called The Metrons who wanted to see the two captains duke it out, building their own weapons out of available materials found scattered around the planet. At one point Kirk reads into his persnal log machine (blog?):

an abundance of mineral deposits-- but no weapons in the conventional sense. Still, I need to find one. Bare-handed... against the Gorn... I have no chance. . . .

A large deposit of diamonds on the surface-- perhaps the hardest substance known in the universe, beautifully crystallized and pointed, but too small to be useful as a weapon. An incredible fortune in stones... yet I would trade them all for a hand phaser, or a good solid club. Yet the Metrons said there would be weapons... if I could find them. Where?

The Metrons permit the crew of the Enterprise to watch the contest between Kirk and The Gorn down on the planet. At one point, Spock figures out what Kirk is doing, while Bones gets frustrated:

Spock: Fascinating. Good. Good. He knows, Doctor. He has reasoned it out.

[Gorn Snarls]

Spock: Yes. Yes.

McCoy: What is it, Spock?

Spock: An invention, Doctor. First potassium nitrate, and now if he can find some sulfur... and a charcoal deposit or ordinary coal...

McCoy: What's he doing?

Spock: Diamonds-- the hardest known substance. Impelled by sufficient force, they would make formidable projectiles.

McCoy: What force?

Spock: Recall your basic chemistry, Doctor. Gunpowder.

An abundance of mineral deposits . . . He has reasoned it out . . . That always intrigued me about this show, the notion of available materials, and has kept with me for years since. Look around today on the web and you will find all the tools you need to build whatever you need. That's what I discovered was the case when thinking about EVDB back in 2002 . . . all the building blocks already existed, each built somewhere along the Long Trail of technology, but just needed to be put together in a new way.

Ironically, we're building what we hope is a better mousetrap to address the issues brought up in Anderson's Long Tail, at least one market instance of it.

More news coming as we prepare to announce the new company in the coming weeks.

Posted by brian at March 13, 2005 12:32 PM


Winer is linking this article.

> There's a distinct rock-star syndrome going on with O'Reilly conferences that is a bit disappointing to me.

I love that. Its totally true. Look at foo camp. What's that about? A bunch of geeks get together and pat each other on the back for being the height of geekdom.

Now how do I get invited next year?

Posted by: Christopher Baus at March 13, 2005 07:18 PM

People will pay to see rock stars. And O'Reilly is business to make money. Maybe you should start a conference for people who want to find out new stuff. You might be enough of a rock star to make it happen. The problem is that many people use "rock star" as first-order approximation of "authoritative", and it's hard to sell something unknow without being perceived as authoritative.

And yeah, like Christopher Baus, it would still be flattering to get a foo camp invite. And I *live* in Sebastopol (home to OR&A).

Posted by: Mike Duffy at March 13, 2005 10:10 PM

You're exactly right that there's no new technology involved in screencasting. I've pointed that out repeatedly.

What does feel new -- to me and apparently to a number of other folks -- is:

1. The forms of collaboration that can emerge when this old-but-underutilized technology intersects with the blogosphere.

2. The modes of storytelling that can emerge when the cinematic potential of the medium is fully exploited.

The second point is what most fascinates me at the moment. For example, a lot of people are finding the Wikipedia screencast I made to be the best way for them to explain to other people what Wikipedia is, and how it could possibly work. And many of them live outside the geek ghetto. I've been wanting to reach that wider audience for a long time.

So is this "just" computer-based training, been there, done that? Or is a difference in degree that becomes a difference in kind? I'd argue the latter. Of course in the end it's only the results that count.

Posted by: Jon Udell at March 14, 2005 03:08 AM

Difference in degree becomes a difference in kind: perhaps that is precisely what the Long Trail graph depicts?

Posted by: Brian Dear at March 14, 2005 05:38 AM

I can't count the ways when someone looked at some great new product and said something like, "I did something just like that 20 years ago as a PhD thesis", or comments like that.

"Visicalc, oh that was just like some mainframe financial modeling system I used on Mainframes..."

"Quicken, oh that's just a glorified spreadsheet..."

"Windows XP? Oh a total ripoff of the Mac, which in turn was a ripoff of the Star."

" Big deal, nothing more than Siebel running as an ASP"

"Oracle - gee we did that stuff in College in the seventies. Relational databases are just so last millenium."

I think comments like that totally miss the point. Yes, sometimes the kernel of an idea came from some other project. And often things are invented simultanuously in different domains. And ok, certain products 'perfect' what was done already in a more primitive way.

But I can salute and respect each of the products I gave as examples.

In my experience a 'successful' product has a relatively small bit of 'science' or 'invention' or 'creativity' and a ton of great engineering, not to mention marketing, sales and business strategy.

So there's nothing new under the sun, it's all just remixes. But that doesn't necessarily make it unimportant!

Posted by: Pito salas at March 14, 2005 07:02 AM

Thanks for articulating "The Long Trail". I've been in this business awhile (started out at Digital Research shortly before that newfangled IBM PC came along) and seen this "everything old is new again" phenomenon repeatedly. But I think each new emergence gets filtered through the current environment, leading to those slight differences in degree, that (may) lead to differences in kind, as Jon Udell suggests.
I think you made a key distinction between a "significant" number of users and a "substantial" number. I would say that "substantial" is the critical mass needed for this "new" technology to become self-sustaining. Each emergence of an old technology or idea into a new context affords the chance that a critical addition or modification can be made, which then attracts more attention, leading to more users, and so on.
Maybe the speakers at the ETech conference won't say anything new to you, but maybe there's an "unknown" attending, who picks up some nugget, puts it into a new context, and off we go. Maybe next year we'll be hearing from this former unknown!

Posted by: Gregg Morris at March 14, 2005 09:27 AM

I totally agree with Pito Salas view - Not everything need to be fresh creations, nor we should always overlook what currently exists - part of new growth shall be extensions of what exist and intersection of what currently exists would lead to newer ideas or products - so i think we should never underestimate to ability to build on what exists and by all means encourage looking over the shoulders of giants and the ability to build on others thoughts. Innovation would not come out of vaccum

Posted by: Sadagopan at March 26, 2005 06:13 AM

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