There’s an interesting piece running now in BusinessWeek by Microsoft Researcher Bill Buxton that capitalizes on the buzz around the concept of the “long tail” in business by arguing that there’s an equally important “long nose” in business innovation that represents the long period of research and development that’s required to bring innovative products to market. Here’s a snip:
My belief is there is a mirror-image of the long tail that is equally important to those wanting to understand the process of innovation. It states that the bulk of innovation behind the latest “wow” moment (multi-touch on the iPhone, for example) is also low-amplitude and takes place over a long periodbut well before the “new” idea has become generally known, much less reached the tipping point. It is what I call The Long Nose of Innovation.
It’s a great article and certainly worth reading in full.
In the piece, he mentions a chart Butler Lampson presented to the Computer Science and Telecommunications Board of the National Research Council that traced the history of a number of key technologies. That’s this chart (frequently referred to as the “tire tracks” chart, for reasons that should be apparent). The chart originally appeared in a 1995 CSTB report, in which the CSTB had identified 9 billion-dollar sectors in the IT economy that bore the stamp of federally-supported research. They revised the chart in 2003 and identified 10 more sectors. I’m guessing that if they revised it again today (and I understand they are), you could at add least three more billion-dollar sectors — “Search,” “Social Networks,” and “Digital Video” — all enabled in some way by long-term research, usually supported by the federal government … exactly the type of long-term research that got hit hardest in this year’s appropriations debacle.
(Ed Lazowska’s testimony before the House Government Reform committee in 2004 contains an extended riff on the chart — how it shows the complex interplay between federally-supported university-based research and industrial R&D efforts; how industry based R&D is a fundamentally different character than university-based R&D; how the chart illustrates how interdependent the IT R&D ecosystem really is; and how university-based research produces not just ideas, but people, too. It’s all under the section titled “The Ecosystem that Gives Birth to New Technologies,” though the whole testimony is certainly worth a read, too.)