The “long tail” revisited

Four years ago was a very lonely time. Not for me personally, understand, but in the social mobile space. The wider non-profit world was just beginning to take a serious interest in what the technology had to offer, and in 2004 I’d just co-authored one of the earlier reports – funded by the Vodafone Group Foundation – on the use of mobile technology for conservation and development. To give some context, these were the days when it was widely believed that “poor people in developing countries” would never be able to afford a phone, and the days when concrete case studies on the application of mobile technology for positive social and environmental change were few and far between. Most evidence was anecdotal. A revised report would look very different today, but with one exception – many of the conclusions would likely still stand. If that’s the case, how far have we really come?

Four years ago this week I came up with the concept of a laptop-based group messaging hub. The software I ended up developing is better known today as FrontlineSMS (“ProjectSMS” was the working title for the first few months). When I eventually got the resources together to write the first version in the summer of 2005, there was zero chance of reinventing any wheels. The “social mobile applications” shop was quite literally bare. After extensive research for a project I had been working on with South Africa National Parks (SANParks), there were simply no appropriate technology mobile solutions they could easily pick up and run with. The situation seemed crazy, and I had a hunch that SANParks were not alone in their need for an appropriate, portable, GSM-based communications tool. The rest is history, as they say.

Things are not quite so lonely today and 2008 – for me, at least – goes down as the year things really began to change. For what seemed like an age, FrontlineSMS was one of the few appropriate technology-based mobile tools aimed at – and openly and freely available to – the grassroots non-profit community. For a while it was the only one. It was also likely the first to be developed specifically with the NGO sector in mind – most other solutions were commercial offerings which found their way into the hands of NGOs, quite often the larger international variety with the funds, expertise and resources to use them. The frustration for me was that – until last year, at least – many of the emerging ‘non-profit’ mobile solutions seemed to be following that same model.

Enter “The Social Mobile Long Tail”, my attempt at mapping out the social mobile applications space (you can read the original post, which explains the thinking in detail, here).

The basic rationale behind it was this. The majority of emerging mobile solutions, platforms or tools (call them what you will) were settling in the red area, and as such were technically and financially out-of-reach of many grassroots NGOs, many of whom sit in the green space. Tools at the higher end of the graph are generally more complex, server-based systems aimed a multinational NGOs or government departments. Tools in the lower end are simple, low-cost, appropriate and easily replicable solutions. My experiences working with NGOs in Africa over the past fifteen years has strongly influenced and steered the focus of my work towards the long tail, and I would have it no other way.

But let’s just destroy a few myths for a minute. There are many out there. Here’s my top three (feel free to add to these in the comments section below).

Firstly, wherever your tool sits on the graph, there is no right or wrong place for it. It’s all about the context of the user. There is just as much a need for $1 million server-based, high bandwidth solutions as there are for free, SMS-only tools. In your typical scenario, national governments would likely go for the former, and grassroots NGOs for the latter, but not always. Both are valid, and tools shouldn’t ever be described as “being better” than another because of it. This is a big mistake. We need there to be solutions all along the tail so that the users have a healthy applications ecosystem to dip into, whoever and wherever they may be. If you’re trying to park a car into a small space, a Mini is much better than a Rolls Royce.

Secondly, let’s not get all hooked up on scale. Just because a tool in the long tail might not run an international mobile campaign does not make it irrelevant. Just as a long tail solution might likely never run a higher-end project, expensive and technically complex solutions would likely fail to downscale enough to run a small communications network for farmers from a small NGO office with no mains electricity, for example.

Thirdly, we don’t yet have any complete, polished mobile tools. I would argue that everything that we see in the social mobile applications ecosystem today is “work in progress”, and it will likely stay that way for a very long time. Speaking with my FrontlineSMS hat on, I’d say we’re probably only about 40% there with that solution right now. There is much to do, and the mobile technical landscape never stands still. Our challenge is how we all move with it, how we stay relevant, and how we all work together to share technical resources and know-how. A fragmented mobile landscape is a problem for all of us.

There have been many positive blog posts calling 2009 the “Year of Mobile”. I think they could be right. I also think 2009 is going to be the “Year of the Searcher” (see my earlier blog post). As I argued back then, let’s never forget it’s the users of our tools who we answer to. Social change happens on the ground, often through them, and not online.

For the first time in four years things don’t feel quite so lonely. I for one am hugely honoured to be working in a space alongside some of the most dedicated and talented people in the mobile and development fields, all of whom are trying to apply a range of practical solutions – all the way along the “social mobile long tail” – to some of the most pressing problems in the world today. We have a great opportunity in front of us if we stick together, remain focussed, and do not lose sight of the big picture.

After all, we don’t want to be reading blog posts in twelve months time calling 2010 the “Year of Mobile”, do we?

[You can read a Haitian Creole translation of this post, courtesy of Susan Basen, here].

37 thoughts on “The “long tail” revisited

  1. Pingback: changefeed
  2. GeorgeS says:

    Another great post, Kenny! Might also be interesting to plot the applications out there on the graph to see where these emerging solutions fit? You need to write something in Flash or whatever to allow people to drag and drop the tools and take a poll…..

    Anywya, here’s to the year of mobile!

  3. Nathaniel Whittemore says:

    Great post! I love this graph, and I love your point (which I completely agree with) that the space is open to and needs multiple models for different users. There is no “right out of the box, one size fits all” application. In fact, even just following different deployments of FrontlineSMS is enough to remember that its all about context.

    Keep up the great work!

  4. Pingback: Lina Srivastava
  5. Pingback: lksriv
  6. Pingback: lilious
  7. Pingback: lilian
  8. tonee says:

    This is a well written and well thought through piece man! Like the memoirs of a veteran politicial or a Frost/Nixon encounter, you do ave something to say and you say it well. Yet I am an optimist to believe that 2010 will still be the year of the mobile. Remember our tag line..the generation PE (portable-everything)? well this is how it will start, by get life in motion. And frontlinesms is up there with the rest of the best of them. Its great to see how your tumble-weed idea has an avalanche in it’s wings. I predict hurricane frontlinesms winds in 2009..

    Its on now..

  9. Pingback: Ken Banks
  10. Pingback: kiwanja
  11. kiwanja says:

    Thanks for all the comments, and the follow-up blog posts which have carried on elements of the conversation.

    @GeorgeS I think it’ll be interesting to map out the landscape as you suggest. I’ll think about that as a future blog post some day. 🙂

  12. Nic Koorbaes says:

    Not to be a kill joy or disrespectful in any way shape or form but I have some serious concerns with respect to the Frontline system. I spent numerous years as an Electronic Warfare Specialist with the Danish Military. Part of my job was to intercept electronic signals from various communication sources and platforms, the most common being e-mails and mobile phone communications.

    Before leaving the service last year I spent a year in Afghanistan, and while in country I was shocked by the amount of signal traffic that was picked up during routine electronic sweeps. Keep in mind that the only type of secure SMS or e-mail is one that is in an encrypted format, I would guess though that due to the cost factor associated with this technology that the system is not encrypted and the SMS are being sent in the “clear”. what this means is that your text messages, and or e-mail can be “snatched” out of the air and read by outside sources. I would recommend to not using this service if you are operating in Afghanistan. Why you ask? Because the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence or ISI actively engages in electronic sweeps and counter measures and most likely provides information to members of the Pakistani Taliban who in turn provide it to the Afghan Taliban. Be leery what you send, it could cost you your life.

  13. kiwanja says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Nic

    I agree with much of what you say. You’re correct that in situations of high risk SMS isn’t necessarily the best communication option, and that people can (and do) put themselves in danger by using it. But the problem is much wider than that. This also applies to people who carry their phones to banned meetings, or who take and send picture messages from the ‘scene of a crime’, or make a simple phone call from the wrong place.

    The majority of FrontlineSMS users aren’t working under oppressive regimes, or in places as tough as Afghanistan. But some are, and in almost all cases they’re fully aware of the risks and decide that being able to communicate gives benefits which outweigh the risks. FrontlineSMS is being used in Afghanistan, and I know the decision to use it has been made by security experts. If you’re interested in that deployment you can read about it here:

    Organisations such as Tactical Tech help make NGOs aware of some of the risks in using technology. Their mobile page is at

    Thankfully the vast majority of FrontlineSMS users working in rural healthcare, conservation, education or agriculture-related projects don’t have these problems, and the software is proving increasingly valuable in these activities.


  14. Pingback: Gina Spadoni
  15. Pingback: gspadoni
  16. janine Duncan says:

    hi there,

    I am doing a business case on Emerging markets, if you have any information regarding South African Emerging markets in Mobile Telephony please share them with me.

  17. Mika says:

    Hi Ken, thanks for the post. I like the term “social mobile” as it – not only terms wise – but also logically connects social media and mobile phones together. The idea that at least to some extent social media can exists via SMS, without needing high-end bandwidth to latest internet social media services makes sense. How do you see this?

  18. kiwanja says:

    @Mika I’m glad you like it. It matches the “Social Mobile Group” on Facebook. 🙂 For me the name relates more to the social connections that the technology can bring, rather than specifically referring to social media in its wider term (i.e. Web 2.0). So it doesn’t matter whether it’s a voice call, an SMS or a social networking mobile internet site – it’s all social, it’s all mobile, and it’s all media. I just happen to think that we can still do a lot more with SMS

    @Janine Sorry – I don’t have any information on that

  19. Pingback: lara long
  20. Pingback: soolara
  21. Pingback: Ken Banks
  22. Pingback: kiwanja
  23. Pingback: lovisa
  24. Pingback: lovisatalk
  25. Landile Dinginto says:

    Hello, can anyone please send me a list of all mobile applications available in Malawi…

    Thank you in advance!

  26. Pingback: andyjb

Comments are closed.