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Views from the Prairie

February 2008

The Long Nose

The Long Tail is a reference to how older technology and products are selling far more than expected due to the lower cost of internet sales. What is not so well known is the other side of the curve–The Long Nose. Tales of long noses are well known to opera fans and children, but in regards to innovation it is a little different. It refers to how innovation takes much longer than expected.

Innovation can take a lot of time. Many innovative technologies have taken twenty to thirty years to come to mass acceptance.

Every innovation needs an infrastructure in order to become a mass product. For example, the process of getting a telephone from the early prototypes in the lab to the massive AT&T organization took a lot time and required building the central office and long distance equipment, learning how to switch calls, manufacturing the phones, and installing them.

The same type of infrastructure has had to be built for all new innovations. Yet, today we all have functional phones–including those things we wear on our hips and ears.

How about some alternative fuel for your your car? Would you like a Fuel Cell automobile? I know I would, but where do you get hydrogen these days? The entire fuel distribution network has to be built. And if we try to artificially speed up the process, we wind up with situations where many things can, and do, go wrong. For example, Brazil was doing well with alcohol fueled cars until one year when they had a crop failure . They wound up with a fuel shortage and US 70s style long lines at the "gas" stations.

While there is a huge push on the Internet to use the latest in technology, successful and profitable innovation is often only a simple refinement of an existing idea. Thus, it took 30 years for the first mass use of a computer mouse– we needed to build the rest of the infrastructure to allow a mouse to help a person use a computer. Similarly, it took 15 years for the internet to progress to the point where the World Wide Web could work successfully. (Although it takes us a much shorter time to figure out how to break it.)

Part of the problem is the same that Pinocchio experienced: marketing hype often makes the long nose longer. It is usually someone else who sees how an invention can be used. Attempts by the inventor to limit that use or to force the "right name" can stretch out the time.

So, when looking for a new innovation, be aware that for most situations, we simply need to find a new way to reuse an existing invention or idea. Such a modification is usually cheaper and more likely to have the rest of the infrastructure in place to work

Risks and Perceptions

We have printed several situations , in this newsletter, where people encountered risks from their computers that they don't expect. While many people want risk free systems and solutions (OK, who doesn't?) the problem is that we can't get risk free lives.

Why is that?

It is the way we are "wired".

We have two opposing tendencies. The first one is to put tasks on "autopilot". Few adults even think about how to fasten their shoes; yet, we do it every day–that task is on autopilot. Tasks that we can put on autopilot allow us to focus on the more difficult tasks and decisions in front of us.

The other tendency is for us to figure out new ways of doing things where we gain some profit from those new things. For example, bored clerks at a store will play with the equipment until they find no way to do anything new with it, they break it, or they find something new that they had not been taught. For them the profit is in the joy of discovery. That means that every system we design will be thoroughly tested over time in ways that nobody can expect– even if you don't have a 10 year old son who wants to take it apart.

What we might consider to be a safe and risk free solution for a customer, will only remain safe for as long they use it in the proscribed manner. Unfortunately, people who come from outside our culture may see ways to use a solution "outside the box". This might result in innovation, and it might result in what they call "personal injury" to themselves or others as they explore parts of the system that have not been designed to work that way.

We can never make things totally safe but we can train people to handle the risks and to try to design cultural safety nets into the solution.


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