OSCON Day 2: The long tail and open source

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Robert Kaye
Aug. 03, 2005 02:10 PM

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Ever since Chris Anderson introduced the Long Tail last year, long tails have been popping up everywhere. Most recently, Kim Polese used the long tail in open source to illustrate the concept behind her new company Spike Source. Kim pointed out that open source software also has a long tail: The most prominent projects like Linux, FreeBSD, Apache, perl, python and Mozilla get a lot more mind-share and attention that the smaller projects in the long tail.

Projects in the long tail haver fewer eyeballs to spot bugs in the software. This is where Spike Source comes in -- they are working to create a collaborative test infrastructure that allows corporations to collaborate on testing open source projects. It turns out that a lot of large companies are using tons of smaller open source projects and therefore spend a lot of time testing and working out interdependencies between projects. Spike Source aims to reduce the amount of time that companies spend doing that and leverage the community to collaboratively tackle this problem.

Since I am a fan of collaborative projects, Spike Source sounds really cool and has the potential for bringing open source into more enterprises. However, my fascination focuses on the long tail meme. Since its introduction, its been used in many places (and perhaps overused) to analyze markets (books, music, open source, etc.). I think this simple meme allows people to change their perspective on well established markets and opens people's eyes to the fact that there is life in markets that were previously underserved.

Applying the long tail to open source yields a number of interesting observations. Long tail projects have fewer users (eyeballs) and therefore less exposure. And less exposure translates into fewer people reading/using the source code and therefore finding and fixing fewer bugs. Fewer people using a project also means that there are fewer people who are interested in hacking on the project. I find that people are more interested in hacking on a project when there are visible signs of other people hacking on the project. Activity begets more activity.

As projects become more popular, they move away from the tail and towards the head. And as they move, they pick up exposure and hackers willing to contribute to the project. The challenge is putting in effort to make progress so the project moves further towards the head.

Don't get me wrong -- the characteristics exemplified by the long tail have been there all along. The long tail merely presents a new way of looking at these markets and analyzing their behavior. Personally, this meme helps me understand a number of things that I didn't grok previously.

Robert Kaye is the Mayhem & Chaos Coordinator and creator of MusicBrainz, the music metadata commons.