Aug 292014

One of the most important characteristics of the technology industry is  you have to be first or second in your market to guarantee profitability.

As more of the world become digitized this is becoming true in other sectors, as Tomi Ahonen’s survey of the app industry shows. This also demolishes the long tail theory of online economics.

The long tail idea was put out by writer Chris Anderson during the first dot com boom.

Anderson’s view was the long tail of older material would be a useful income source for creatives and businesses. For many, small payments on a ‘long tail’ of older work would add up to reasonable revenues.

I’ve always skeptical of that view as the internet tends reward the ‘one percenters’ — a tiny number with the most traffic or revenue make the money while the bulk of players fight over the few crumbs that drop from the table.

A sheer disaster industry

A good example of how digital markets favour a tiny group of leaders  is in Tomi Ahonen’s survey of the 2014 mobile apps market that shows the vast majority of developers struggle for pennies.

Ahonen pulls no punches, describing the apps industry as a “sheer disaster industry with only one sector making money” and goes on to describe just how dire the predicament is for most developers.

The first point is where the money is being made; the first answer is by Google and Apple who skim five billion of the industry’s $21 billion in revenues. Just that stat alone shows where the real money is in the sector.

Of the remaining $15 billion the top 1.3% of the industry — around 27,000 developers — take $11 billion, or 73% of the revenue and leave four billion to be shared among the other 98%.

Slaves and huddled masses

At the other end of the scale those who Ahonen calls the ‘slaves’ and the ‘huddled masses’ there’s only 400 million dollars to be shared around two million developers. Implying 87% of the industry barely make a few hundred dollars a year.

On Ahonene’s figures two out of five developer make nothing.

Revenues left . . . . . . . . . .  0 million dollars
Bottom 39% developers . . 819,000 developers
Bottom 39% earn . . . . . . .  0 million dollars
Bottom 39% earn . . . . . . .  0% of all revenues
Bottom 39% earn . . . . . . .  0% of developer revenues
Average per dev . . . . . . . .  0 dollars
In above numbers:
Beggars failed to earn . . . . 400,000
Hobbyists don’t care . . . . . 250,000
Branded utility app devs . . 170,000
Source: TomiAhonen Consulting analysis on Vision Mobile survey Aug 2014

The Apps industry is a stark indicator of just how brutal the economics of digital distribution are. The long tail is real, it’s just that it describes a massive imbalance in income within markets.

For all of us trying to make a dollar in the digital world, we need to find the niche where we fit into the profitable part of the curve.

Being on the wrong end of the long tail is a recipe for poverty.

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