Joel on Software - Monday, October 24, 2005: "This is where Google is actually hurt by the long tail world of millions of small sites."

This long tail thing - it's not all good, y'know. I was thinking about this the other day whilst chancing across some stats analysis we were running for a client.

We do a lot of porting work - taking mobile applications that we (or others) have written and converting them to work on new mobile phones. This is an inherent part of our business right now and whilst it's not as obviously rewarding as developing scratch, like it or not it's very necessary. There are porting frameworks which aim to help you get around this problem (in fact we wrote a rather snazzy one ourselves which we use internally) but they don't get away from the need to build and test your apps on real devices.

So which handsets do you port to? Well... there are a few biggies, a few which obviously stand out when you look at who's trying to use your service - and you should look at who the prospective audience is, up front, because different audiences will have tendencies towards ownership of different handsets. But there are a few up the top - Nokia Series 40, high-end Sony Ericssons, etc. - which are a no-brainer. But then look at the rest of them - the graph below shows the number of unsupported customers we've had for about 127 handsets which our service doesn't currently support (it has been explicitly ported to just over 40 more popular devices, of course!):


Oooh, it's a long tail - the top 19 out of 127 handsets (15% of them) which we don't currently support make up 50% of traffic. But look at the other 50% - to support these we'll incur incremental costs testing and development, so they become commercially unfeasible.

The morals of this tale?

  1. "Write once, run everywhere". Stare into the mirror and say it's name three times - it doesn't appear, it's just a fairytale.
  2. You need to look at your audience before you decide which devices to port to.
  3. Porting costs are a matter of economics: the more you spend, the wider your audience. But it may not be commercially viable for you to widen your audience beyond a certain point.