Monday, February 27, 2006

Bricklin's "When The Long Tail Wags The Dog"

Dan Bricklin's pretty brilliant. He didn't go to MIT and Harvard Business School for nothing. If you haven't read his essay, "When The Long Tail Wags The Dog" you really should. Here's the link.

And check this out:
While interviewing ex-Palm Computing CEO Donna Dubinsky last year, I asked her about the applications people came up with for use on the original Palm handheld and their effect on the success of the product (starting at 2:30 in the recording). What she said surprised me. In addition to using one or more of the few "popular" built-in applications (calendar, address/phone book, etc.), "...rather than adding 3-5 applications [to those existing built-in ones] on a device, customers would find one that was compelling for them, and that to them was a make it or break it thing. It might have been the stars and what the stars are, it might have been world traveler applications, or it might have been querying a detailed database at work, but there was always some additional compelling application for the Palm owner."

That statement struck me as very special. There are "must have" applications. Good versions of the popular, everybody-needs-them applications were a minimal requirement (and highly valued). But people bought the Palm instead of some cheaper limited device that could only do those popular applications because they had at least one other niche application that made the increment in cost worth it. More importantly, the Palm (joined later by similarly customizable Pocket PC competitors) became dominant beating out the cheaper, non-customizable devices. The "must have" applications were often quite limited in their appeal and often labors of love, but they made the Palm a successful product.

So, it isn't just the number of potential items that's of value, it's the kind of items. Some are of great value and their availability completely drives the purchase. For example, in the late 1990's, many people in their 40's and 50's didn't use personal computers or email. But when their children went away to college and email became a major form of communication available to stay in touch with those children, they got the computers, signed up for email, and started using it. That one application got them started. Once they were email users they would use it to communicate with people other than their children, but it was that one particular application (communicating with a particular loved one) that drove the purchase and adoption.