Guest Blog: Tale of a Very Long Tail

Submitted by: Bryon Moyer, Editor of EE Journal.

I cut my engineering teeth on programmable logic and circuit design (bipolar, ECL). Nothing happens in those fields without tools, and so we have a massive EDA industry. OK, not as massive as they might like, given their constant kvetching about how the market never seems to grow, but it’s sizable and well established.

So I’m used to an environment dominated by a few big companies. The little companies around them mostly act like quantum fluctuations to feed the big guys. You start a company, and if you’re successful, you’re sucked into a big guy. If not, you blink out of existence like so much energy dissipating back into the ether. Those few companies that never manage to disappear, but keep trundling along, run the risk of being treated as walking wounded.

Having spent a couple years now trying to parse the MEMS industry for EE Journal, I’ve found a very different dynamic. And any stroll through the Sensors Expo (this year’s edition just finished up) will reinforce that fact. Just when you thought you knew the players, you find out how many more there are that you had no idea existed.

It feels to me like this is a result of the long years of slogging that has characterized the MEMS industry. Until recently, there has been no hockey stick. A very few relatively recent high-volume applications like airbag accelerometers have given hope to the stalwart that their efforts can achieve commercial success, but it’s been hit and miss, and not all boats have been lifted by the rising tide of visibility for the industry.

My sense of the structure is that there are three categories of MEMS merchant. There are a couple big guys – you know who they are – and their message tends to be, more or less, “We do it all; you don’t need anyone else.”

Next are some companies that managed to strike it rich in smartphones or Wii or some other specific application that took off. Guys like Kionix and InvenSense. They’re visible at conferences and they put a fair bit of energy into the marketing of their technology. In fact, to my mind, that’s one of the things that sets them apart: aggressive marketing.

Then there’s a long tail of companies that have been doing yeoman’s work deep in the caverns, with no IPOs or champagne sales conferences and scarcely a pat on the back. Each one has a particular niche or angle or variant on the technology. You might look at them and think they could do with a bit more sophistication, but the fact is, they’ve been scrambling for years on a shoestring, and fancy ad campaigns just haven’t been in the budget.

These are going to be make-or-break times for such companies, in my opinion. It’s like they’ve come up from the caverns, blinking in the sunlight, realizing that there’s a whole new environment in which to work, full of both promise and challenge. As MEMS gains legitimacy and becomes mainstream, the pressure is likely to grow on everyone to perform more like the more visible folks. Marketing becomes more important as messages get refined and cast farther afield. Granted, it’s a bit Catch-22, since you need the success to fund the marketing, but you need the marketing to achieve the success.

If this were EDA, everyone would be predicting the imminent demise of most of the little guys. But it’s not EDA, it’s MEMS, and MEMS seems to play by its own rules. But as more visible companies have their day in the sun, they’ll cast their shadows over the smaller folks, and so the managers in the long tail will have to work harder to prove their value.

As if they didn’t already have enough to do…

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