I was at Nokia in Helsinki on Tuesday running a workshop on the Long Tail. I was impressed by how much brainpower they had in house, and how much they were inviting in. Just in the past week I'd been preceded by Henry Jenkins, Cory Doctorow, Esther Dyson, CK Prahalad and probably a few others that I'm forgetting about.
One of the interesting questions that came up during the workshop was about Apple's new iPod Shuffle. In provacateur mode, I described it as a "value subtract" product, arguing that the lack of a display would limit its success. I got a fierce reaction from one of the Nokia's researchers, who thinks it will be a huge hit because of its passive entertainment value: with near-zero effort on your part, the Shuffle offers a fresh selection of music from your collection, both randomly copied from your hard drive and played in random order. As Apple's marketing puts it: "iPod Shuffle adds musical spontaneity to your life. Lose control. Love it."
This was a good opportunity to put Long Tail theory to the test--what would the rules I've set out predict about the Shuffle's commercial future? The answer: they argue against it. Here's why.
You can think of the thousands of songs on your hard drive as a Long Tail of sorts. Even though you've bought, ripped, or downloaded them all, they're not all your personal "hits". Some of those tracks are songs you don't care for on albums you otherwise like; others are albums you wish you hadn't bought or ripped in the first place. And yet others are songs that you've simply grown tired of. In other words, the signal-to-noise ratio in your own collection can be nearly as variable as that in any commercial music service.
The difference is that the commercial services provide recommendations, editors' picks, bestseller lists and collaborative filtering to suppress most of the junk. This is important: a key element in extracting value from any Long Tail is the ability to find the diamonds in the rough, which gets harder the further into the rough you go. In other words, a Long Tail without good filters is just noise.
So that, in a nutshell, is the case against the Shuffle. For anyone with a big music collection (thousands of tracks) a random walk through their entire library is statistically likely to be an unwelcome reaquaintance with mistaken purchases, whim rips, filler album tracks and embarrassing ghosts of music taste past. And if you're anything like me, that gets annoying real fast.
Now, I know that the shuffle feature can be turned off and you can load the device with any playlist you want. But then it's just another mini music player, save the quite useful feature of telling you which track is playing and allowing you to choose another without having to memorize their order. That's what I meant by "value subtract." No doubt they'll still sell millions, such is Apple's brand and momentum. But I don't think the Shuffle will have anything like the impact of the original iPod itself.