Chris Anderson wrote a very interesting article in the October 2004 issue of Wired Magazine titled "The Long Tail". The idea in his article, effectively, is that traditional businesses (Blockbuster and Barnes & Nobles to name a couple) have certain physical constraints that all brick & mortar businesses face. They have limited space to host inventory, so they focus on the most "popular" pieces of inventory to maximize their business. They cannot afford to sell items that only a small segment of the population enjoys. New businesses and models, like Netflix and Amazon, are not faced with the same physical constraints. They can market and sell a much broader inventory allowing them to cater to the most unique consumer needs. They can work with a network of suppliers in the backend, have multiple storage facilities and virtually deliver anything to everyone. Essentially, they are able to cater to "the long tail". The argument here is that the area under the "long tail" is greater than "the body" therefore making these new age companies poised for success.
(Picture taken from Andrew Hargadon's blog.)
So how does this pertain to Enterprises and specifically SharePoint technology? Here's how:
In this new world of "Web 2.0" – anyone with a computer is creating content. Whether it's email, video (YouTube), pictures, blogging, social interactions (FaceBook), et cetera, everyone is a contributor! The majority of this content I would classify as "the long tail". It's content created by the masses that's relevant for certain groups of people. Internet companies like Digg and Del.cio.us have benefited greatly by creating technology that helps surface all this content on the Internet. What about the Enterprise?
Same thing is happening in the Enterprise – people are innovating, creating content, blogging, working with their virtual teams to create content. However, this content is not relevant to everyone in the Enterprise… and thus is "the long tail"; clearly, this IP is different from Internet IP because security, auditing and ownership models are different in the Enterprise. Some of this content may become relevant to everyone; some is clearly not meant to be. Technology like workflow and rights management can help govern this; technologies like search, tagging and taxonomy can help surface this content.
SharePoint technology provides a platform to address the long tail needs of content. It gives a platform for end-users to create content, to collaborate to create content… and it gives IT (as well as end-users and site administrators) the tools and knobs to govern and surface all this great content. Some niche vendors focus on the "head" – structured content that has to go through certain processes; certain technologies just focus on the right hand side – let users create whatever they want and make it searchable. SharePoint provides that platform and integration that cuts across both these worlds empowering users and letting IT govern.
So what's the feature mapping here? Replace "Products" in the graph above with "Content" and you'll find that things like Web Pages, the Document Center, Records Center, enterprise workflow map to the "head" section of the graph; artifacts like team sites, team workflow, blogs and wikis map to the "long tail" section. Search, tagging and categorization cross the spectrum of content.
The parallel here is quite clear… and I feel (granted I am biased J) that SharePoint provides the right platform to address what's happening in the Enterprises today vs. other vendors out there who may do well in certain pieces, but simply don't cater to the long tail or vice-versa.