A Consultant's View

Prairie Trail Software, Inc. ............................................................. 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