Software Innovation on the Fringe: From Universal Platforms to Long-Tail Community Support

Matthias Jarke, RWTH Aachen University & Fraunhofer FIT, Germany

Large-scale requirements engineering for long-tail communities can be seen as a down-scaling of two recent trends in the requirements engineering community, both dealing with different facets of what can be called “dynamic complexity” [1].

From the market side, globalization leads to more and more diversity in customer demands on all kinds of products, at low prices, and with rapid adaptation to changing needs towards different culture-dependent requirements. For organizations, this creates a new kind of dynamic complexity in their product requirements which they counter by introducing what John Henderson and others have called “Innovation from the Edge”, namely the involvement of free-lancers or even lead customers in the further development of their products. At least since the battle between the social network platforms MySpace and Facebook a few years ago, we know that end user enhancement of system functionalities can be a decisive factor in the competition between platforms. The success of the App ecosystem by Apple has confirmed this point for the mobile smartphone world.

In most cases, and of course in the two last-mentioned ones, such end user involvement in innovation also requires a technical platform where it can take place in a comfortable manner. According to influential theories of technological evolution [2, 3], evolution takes place by adapting and re-combining existing well-established base technologies to higher-level ones, and the success of platforms and products also depends on the right timing of these re-combinations. In the ICT sector, the last two decades have seen this kind of evolution in the form of confluences, between computers and networking, between phones and mobility, and then in a stepwise manner among all the four of them, plus higher-level protocols for web browsing (HTML etc.), web services, and related development support. The next confluence step, mixing all of this with sensor-actor technologies and embedded technical systems, is already beginning under labels such as Internet of Things and Services , Cyberphysical Systems, or domain-specific variants such as Industry 4.0.

From a macro-economic perspective, there currently seems to be a monopolistic tendency towards very large-scale platforms whose brokerage of sometimes very general, sometimes quite specific services tends to lead worldwide or at least continent-wide market dominance, and with the potential consequence to concentrate a large share of the world’s knowhow in a few hands – with all the chances and risks this entails.

“Innovation from the Edge” assumes that end user innovation – perhaps involuntarily – contribute to these monopolistic tendencies, because an “edge” implies the existence of a center. However, beyond these huge social networks, there exist many much smaller yet active communities in the “long tail” of the World Wide Web. Such communities seem to reflect much better the multi-cultural and often domain-focused tradition of European research and industries, as discussed e.g. in the Horizon 2020 program with its focus on specific societal challenges complementary to generic IT.

It seems a very valid question how the basic concepts mentioned above can scale down to these kinds of communities, preferably without loss of ownership to their data and services, and with tools they can adapt to their own needs. Borrowing from the names of multi-cultural music festivals all over the world, but most prominently in Edinburgh, we have therefore chosen “Innovation on the Fringe” rather than “from the edge”.


[1] M. Jarke, K. Lyytinen (eds.), "Complexity of Systems Evolution: Requirements Engineering Perspective," Special Issue, ACM Transactions on Management Information Systems vol. 5, no. 3, 2014.

[2] W.B. Arthur, The Nature of Technology: What it is and How it Evolves. Free Press, New York, 2009.

[3] T.L. Friedman: The World is Flat – The Globalized World in the Twenty-First Century. Penguin Books, 2005.

Matthias Jarke is Professor of Information Systems at RWTH Aachen University and Director of the Fraunhofer FIT Institute for Applied IT in Sankt Augustin and Aachen, Germany. Prior to joining RWTH in 1991, he obtained a doctorate from the University of Hamburg and served on the faculties of Stern School of Business at New York University, and the University of Passau, Germany. His research area is cooperative information systems for applications in engineering, business, and culture. He is currently deputy coordinator of the German national excellence cluster in mobile communications in Aachen. Jarke has published about 25 books and over 250 refereed papers. He served as Chief Editor of the journal, Information Systems, from 1993-2003, and as program chair of conferences such as VLDB, EDBT, CAiSE, and others. From 2004-2007, he was president of the German Informatics society, GI. He was elected an ACM Fellow in 2013.