Tuesday, March 04, 2008


Chris Anderson, Wired’s Editor-in-Chief, just posted the main arguments from his new book, “Free.” Chris is well known thanks to his last book, “The Long Tail,” which explored the interaction of consumption patterns and distribution. “Free” is the logical next step. Just as decreased search and distribution costs enable niche demand to generate as much aggregate consumption as the more popular part of the curve, decreased hosting, processing, and bandwidth costs are driving the cost of web services to zero.

To free.

Chris is a very sharp guy. However, what inspired me about “The Long Tail” was not the story he told about long-tail consumption. Instead, it was how long-tail thinking could be applied to community, innovation, and learning. I wrote about this in the “Collapsing Geography” paper, but to sum up:

This same power law distribution is a suitable approximation for other aspects of innovation and collaboration, beyond the Long Tail of consumption Anderson describes. Consider the potential entrepreneur: how many factors act to prevent someone from even attempting to build a business? Remember, this is not just the investment of dollars, but also includes time, social risk, and other elements. Even a basic requirement for a lawyer or license is a substantial hurdle.

In cultures or nations that generate many of these impediments, only a few entrepreneurs even try. While they may be the best funded, most determined, or most risk-tolerant entrepreneurs, innovation — as a random walk through design space — is dampened by significant reductions in participants. Inventory and shelf space pressures will tend to constrain a market to the top of the power law, reducing the variety and ignoring a lucrative customer base. In the same way, regulatory, legal, or social pressures also prevent entrepreneurial activities.
Given that innovation occurs at the intersections between information and social networks, yet another Long Tail exists, that of long-tail communities. New York city supports an unparalleled number of differing, overlapping communities, thanks to the density and diversity of its population. When communication technologies allow similar numbers of communities to form and intersect at a distance, the opportunities for innovation expand tremendously.

Long-tail communities aid long-tail innovation.

In a similar way, what excites me about “Free” is less the insight that any web-based service is going to face enormous pressure to be free, but the increased relative cost of what is left. After all, if duplication, storage, and distribution are free, then the percentage of your product or service costs associated with design, development, and support increase proportionally.

Not to mention the cost of your customers’ time.

Intel and AMD are fighting it out to ensure that computing power is free. Where is the competition to make it free to develop a great user interface? A compelling experience? To support millions of users?

To create something worth spending your increasingly fragmented and limited time using?

Certainly, open source development, Creative Commons, and other crowd sourcing models are creating additional tools for reducing design and development costs. Moreover, Y Combinator, 37 Signals, and others are demonstrating that certain forms of software development are much cheaper than they used to be.

But the iPhone’s interface wasn’t created by two people over a weekend. World of Warcraft was an enormously expensive endeavor.

Tools and technology to attack the not-free portions of development are one my favorite topics when I think about what’s next. They could make for some really fun projects.


dyerbrookME said...

Your Information Wants to be Free, but My Information is Only Available for a Consulting Fee.

This sounds a little bit like the theory of utilities, like air and water, which pertained for so many centuries. They're free in a lot of places, or dirt cheap, but then they're polluted in a lot of places , too, now or unavailable in some places. I wonder if the results flow from the original concept of free utilities.

Somebody always has to pay when there are so many things that are free. This is not just a moral lesson. It's a technical lesson. Electricity, servers, programmers who need to make a living, these things cost money as you must know from having worked at Linden Lab.

The Lindens had to sell "land" or server space to pay these bills. There's an idea that soon, they will be able to end that concept which they clearly don't enjoy doing much, and sell some sort of vague suite of "services" or "hook-ups" at the "grid level" for example. People are waiting to see how that will work!

Corporations are going to them pay -- so this theory goes -- for what consumers will get for free.

There is so much talk going around now about how everything will be free, the "8 generatives" and such. Who pays when everything is free?


Eric said...

Cool post! As for the question of "free" UI Design tools, it really feels like Adobe/Macromedia has been sniffing around this area for years now with Flash/Flex/Air/etc., but even now they seem like they're still kinda hung up on the whole content creators as "professionals" (i.e. people with $250+ to blow on a software license) model that has been their bread and butter for so long. It's a shame though, because their authoring tools are pretty slick these days, and really serve as a great jumping-off point for people just getting into the fields of interaction and game design.

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