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App Store groupthink is bad news for small devs

'Long tail' model debunked

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Open.. and Shut Two years ago The Register's Andrew Orlowski, writing for the New Statesman, poked crater-sized holes in the notion that "long tail" economics were good for musicians. In 2011, it's equally clear that the long tail* is bad business for app developers, brands, and, well, everyone. The internet has not diffused the ability to make money; it has concentrated it.

The reason is clear: the more abundant the content or apps, the greater the value of separating wheat from chaff. We simply don't have the time or patience to scavenge the long tail of production.

This isn't a new idea. For me, Orlowski's review of the music industry was dispositive on the issue, along with Nick Carr's analysis of web traffic. But it bears repeating because of the continued euphoria around app stores and their supposed ability to share the wealth in a growing mobile economy.

If only.

I've written that app stores "are orthogonal to the app discovery experience", a fact that becomes ever more salient as the number of apps increases. With more than 400,000 apps in Apple's App Store and over 250,000 in Google's Android Marketplace, it's increasingly difficult to sift through the cruft to find apps worth using. And yet we do: Gartner projects 49 billion app downloads by 2013.

How are people determining which apps to use? They follow the crowd.

As analyst firm Nielsen recently reported, the top 10 Android apps make up 43 per cent of users' time spent on mobile apps. The top 50? More than 60 per cent. In other words, most users never use, and probably never even see, the vast majority of available apps. They check out the top 10 lists in the various app stores and stick with these crowd-sourced or curated lists.

Not that this is any different from other areas of technology. The folklore around open source suggests hordes of developers happily hacking away on GNOME, the Linux kernel or other projects. The reality? The majority of development on these major projects is done by very few (five per cent, in the case of GNOME ). And if you run the numbers on code repositories like Google Code or SourceForge, it's equally clear that for all the hundreds of thousands of open-source projects out there, a tiny minority are actively developed or adopted.

The same holds true in search. If you're a brand looking to stand out, a new Slingshot study offers sobering news: the top three positions in a Google search return 35 per cent of all traffic. To be fair, these numbers are actually getting better: the top three used to deliver 62.5 per cent of all traffic back in 2006.

In short, the web is perhaps even more "winner take all" than the offline world ever was. An independent bookstore, for example, might thrive in the pre-Amazon age, but today we all shop together at the likes of Amazon and eBay, do our searching on Google, and talk with friends on Facebook.

The web certainly did expose us to a long tail of possible choices, but it turns out that it's much too hard to make sense of it all, so we're all glomming together in packs, whether we're buying apps, socialising, or developing open-source code. ®

* Continuing to sell products in small quantities over a long period of time, so named for tailing off and flattening out of a XY graph that is created when charting popularity to inventory, where X is inventory and Y is popularity.

Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Strobe, a startup that offers an open source framework for building mobile apps. He was formerly chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfresco's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears twice a week on The Register.

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