I had the good fortune of hearing Chris Anderson in person talk about The Long Tail yesterday. I bought the book at the event (paid at least double what it costs at Amazon, but so far, after 82 pages I haven't regretted the purchase) just so I could get Chris to autograph it for me. His presentation was really good, and he had great answers to the questions posed by the audience -- and Microsofties make for a tough crowd -- I think he got through slide 2 when someone interrupted with a question. Let the guy speak people!
Chris mentions a lot of companies in his book, and finally got around to Microsoft with XBox Live Arcade which he considers our leveraging of The Long Tail. I just downloaded the Frogger demo and am probably going to get it for my wife, who enjoyed the game back in the day -- so his point is valid.
Let me caveat this next statement -- I haven't yet read the whole book, so perhaps Chris gets around to this point.
He brings up a bunch of relatively new companies or software who have embraced The Long Tail: Amazon, Google, Netflix, eBay. I think he misses the fact Microsoft embraced The Long Tail long ago (and continues to do so today). In some cases, we leveraged The Long Tail long before many of these companies existed.
I don't have any sales numbers here, and I'm only guessing here on the relative sales of each. Consider the following, with the 'hit' on the top and the 'niche' on the bottom.
Hit --> Streets & Trips 2006
Streets & Trips 2006 with GPS Locator
Pocket Streets 2005
MapPoint 2006 Standard Edition
Niche --> MapPoint 2006 with GPS Locator
Some may argue these are effectively the same product with minor differences. While they may share a bulk of similar data (the maps) the features and platforms diverge quite a bit, and it's non-trivial to deliver some of the features unique to only one of the products. I would say it's Microsoft embracing the niche and bringing a great product to a very small audience.
Another case in point is the Windows Media Center Presentation Layer platform. It's designed from the ground up to democratize (a favorite word of Chris' in the book) the creation of remote controlled interfaces worldwide. In fact, much of its power comes in the fact it can remote user interfaces with full fidelity to another device in the home, namely the XBox 360. Chris has first hand experience with the inherent problems associated with being a niche: XBox 360 + Windows Media Center PC + resaonably fault tolerant home network, preferably wired (and almost has to be wired if you want to push high definition content around). I'm not sure how much more niche you can get than that. Yet I believe we are highly successful both as a product and a platform for the audience we target. In fact, I've been pretty excited about the response over at http://discuss.mediacentersandbox.com/forums/default.aspx for a 1.0 platform which won't be commercially available for a while yet and whose fans must jump through large hurdles just to get the bits to run. Not to mention they can't use it to deliver any typical desktop applications (apps they create *only* run within Windows Media Center).
And I don't think the Streets + Trips and Windows Media Center teams are unique here at Microsoft. With the exception of Office and Windows I believe *most* of our broad spectrum of products would be considered part of the tail, not the head. A closer look might reveal we revel in the niche at many, many levels. To his credit, Chris does call out you can observe The Long Tail distribution in just about any market or company or set of data.
Instead of Microsoft trailing these relative newcomers in embracing The Long Tail, perhaps it's more along the lines of these newcomers finally discovering and adopting what Microsoft has used for many, many years. I think it's relatively easy to elevate these (again, relatively) new companies as being on the 'cutting edge' of embracing the niche because of their rapid growth and discounting companies such as Microsoft simply because they have large hits (and perhaps forgetting they provide a ton of value for the niche).
When asked at his talk how he felt Microsoft perhaps embraced The Long Tail, Chris mentioned our platform as enabling niche developers along with XBox Live Arcade. He is right, but it would be interesting to see additional detail and research into the broad Microsoft product offerings as well.
I'm looking forward to the rest of the book -- and embracing my nicheness.