Thursday, December 08, 2005

The Wrong Tale: The GIS Long Tail

So, I was reading the new Squidoo lens on the Long Tail, and I realized it's becoming one of those things that can mean whatever you want. Something bothered me when I saw this thing a couple of months ago from Dave Bouwman.

The first thing is that the long tail isn't that long, relative to the short tail. Or, rather, the area under the tail is pretty small. I wonder what would happen if we had actual numbers on the y-axis: does anyone know how many users there are of Mapquest, Yahoo Maps, Google Maps, Windows Local Live/Virtual Earth, Google Earth etc. compared to the users of specialized GIS tools? It's probably a pretty high ratio. This makes the long tail a lot shorter, and the slope a lot steeper.

One reason that the Long Tail makes a lot sense for things like books is that there are millions of books to choose from. But it's not the guy that sells one book out at the far end of the tail that gets rich, it's Amazon with a virtual warehouse that sells the whole long tail. If users paid for their GIS software per use, the model might make some kind of economic sense. The people that use GIS alot, want some complex GIS features. The people that are looking at pretty pictures and want to find the shortest route to Grandma's house (it's over the river and through the 'hoods) don't need it, in fact, they don't need to pay at all.

The real question is at what level people will start paying for features. There is a point somewhere between Google Earth Pro and ArcInfo where people really do have a choice in terms of what to buy. The biggest change that has developed in the past two years is that the feature list of the free stuff keeps creeping upwards, and taking some of the left side of the tail away from the people that sell things. When you have services with APIs and lots of free data, that changes the game. It grows the whole market, so there is a lot more demand for data, data that has to be created with the advanced tools.

Anyway, I'll draw up a new tail tomorrow and we'll see how it looks.