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Open Source and The Long Tail

Most of the discussions I’ve been regarding The Long Tail have used content as the primary example of explaining what the term means. I hear, “The Long Tail means that some obscure physics book from the 1930′s — that only 10 people care about reading again — is available.” or “Some Cajun song recorded in 1925 that only Joe Schmedlap and his wife want to hear is at-their-fingertips.” The thought is that *whatever* is of interest will find some kind of audience who will want to read, watch or somehow consume it if it’s available in some repository on the internet. It’s a powerful concept that is being played out every day that more content and data is being mapped onto the ‘net.

I’d like to offer up what I’m experiencing as a potentially more profound example of The Long Tail: the ecosystem delivering plug-ins, add-ons, modules, components, themes and other chunks of functionality that somebody, somewhere wants to use with some open source software project…and they’re all free! The better open source software gets, the more functionality it enjoys and the more energy around extending it, I believe the quicker value will be mapped on to the ‘net. This, in turn, will incent and facilitate people PLACING Long Tail stuff online so it can be accessed by those interested in it.

I’ll admit that it’s the primary open source “platforms” or major frameworks right now that are receivers of the energy and effort in building all of this stuff, but nonetheless it’s pretty amazing. Be it Drupal, Joomla, Xoops,  phpBB, TikiWiki or hundreds of other projects, even the obscure add-on is either available or underway by some individual or team.

Case in point: Joomla has more than half a dozen RSS add-ons. Though RSS enabled the fast growth in podcasting to emerge, it’s still not even understood by all save for a tiny percentage of the tech world. This protocol is also key to reading feeds in a news aggregator or the compiling of blogs and news feeds that then appear on web sites or focused topic blogs. I’ve been on the hunt myself for an Joomla extension that will display what I want but haven’t found it…yet. Hmmm….maybe I’ll have it written.

If it were, say, three years ago Joomla would cost roughly $100k just for the software. Today it’s free and an amazing amount of energy and effort is invested by the developer ecosystem surrounding it. If Joomla were a commercial software project I’d bet there would be ONE approach to RSS and ONE RSS extension on the product roadmap AND it would hit about 80% of what the market wanted (and cost a bundle). The RSS extensions I’ve delved into off of the Joomla site each have their own approach to managing RSS (which, by the way, is very refreshing and offers alot of choice!) and many of them cover even obscure requirements.

Chris Anderson (Wired editor who coined the term “The Long Tail”) has a book coming out soon and it remains to be seen how far he takes the concept. For me, it sure seems that what is already out there in open-source-land fits The Long Tail concept perfectly.

NOTE: Larry Lessig’s blog led me to the Open Source Business model site/blog. It is AWESOME and is looking at and considering some of the non-monetary, non-barter, value-based shifts I’m seeing and experiencing…and know are accelerating. If you are puzzling at all over why all the Web 2.0 companies have a “free” option (or are all free), I’d encourage you to read this post on this site to give you a sense of what’s going on with current thinking and how the paradigms are shifting. It also will help you see how The Long Tail goes far beyond the availability of content.

About Steve Borsch

I'm CEO of Marketing Directions, Inc., a trend forecasting, consulting and publishing firm in Minnesota. Prior to that I was Vice President, Strategic Alliances at Lawson Software in St. Paul where I was responsible for all partnerships at this major vendor of enterprise resource planning software products and services. Read more about me here unless you're already weary of me telling you how incredible and awesome I am.

Comments

  1. great post – the hierarchy continues to flatten as open sources CMS and tools become richer, more accessible, and comprehensive to use.

    i deal in communications in the non-profit sector and open-source software is have a big impact in that area. i anticipate the political consequences of that capacity building to become evident over the next 3-5 years as it allows organizations to work more and more collaboratively.

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