Readers of this blog will know that my latest geeky pursuit is flying electric-powered radio-control model airplanes with the kids (okay, the kids are mostly cover). This means that I've been learning about the hobby and, like all hobbies, it's a rabbit hole. You can not only go as deep as you want, but once you scratch the surface it's all deep. Most of these interests are not only poorly served by traditional media, they're not even well served by web media. Two steps down the learning curve and you're in the world of discussion groups and emails, the dark matter of the web. You've fallen off the end of the Long Tail.
Let me give you an example.
The good thing about electric planes is that they're quiet and they simply go when you turn them on--no loud gas engines with fiddly carburetors and fuel mess. But the bad thing about electrics is that charging and discharging batteries is still a black art. Flying the planes themselves is easy compared to the electrochemical Olympics of proper battery "conditioning".
You'd think in this day of laptops, cellphones and iPods that recharging batteries would be a solved problem. But it's not. Unlike your typical computer-controlled gadget, which typically has lithium-ion batteries with dedicated battery-management circuitry and a custom charger, radio-controlled planes have individual cells strung together in any number of configurations and crudely wrapped in plastic.
Nearly every battery pack configuration is different. I'm looking at two right now. One is a NiMH pack of 5 cells, rated at 7.2v and 1000 milliamps. The other is a NiCad pack of six cells rated at 9.6v and 1,800 milliamps. And there are at least 16 other configurations in the bag at my feet. Each came with its own trickle charger with its own custom output voltage and amperage and recommended charge time. They fill another bag. There are four different kind of plugs, all incompatible with each other. The only way to keep these kind of batteries delivering their full power is to completely discharge them and then recharge them with exactly the right juice for exactly the right length of time, to avoid battery "memory" and overheating.
Now consider what it takes to prepare for a day of flying. Let's say you want to take four planes out tomorrow with two fully-charged packs each. That's eight batteries or at least four different configurations that need to be properly discharged and recharged. Done by hand, this means dragging out a few planes and sitting there for an hour running the motors with each battery until you're sure it's discharged, then plugging each one into its appropriate charger (you did remember which goes with which, didn't you?) and marking the times to unplug each for its different requirement.
Oh, and by the way, you need to do it at least five hours before you go to bed, because you can't let them go overnight for fear of overcharging (to say nothing of the occasional battery that overheats and melts down in a puddle of plastic and a puff of smoke). It's a day's work and if you get anything wrong you've probably killed an expensive battery if you haven't burned down your house.
Surely there's some kind of fancy charger that can automate all of this? Well, maybe. But good luck in finding it. Dozens of computer-controlled "peak", "pulse" and conditioning chargers, ranging from $50 to more than $200 are available from specialist retailers (Amazon won't save you now), and each one looks like the most godawful piece of industrial lab bench equipment you can imagine (see above). Their instruction manuals can run scores of pages and woe to the user that doesn't read them cover to cover and tries to just, you know, plug in a battery and press "Start".
What's a regular person to do? I've got no idea. I was having coffee with an acquaintance at the airport this morning and mentioned this problem as an example of how easily one finds oneself in the Long Tail and how quickly one falls off the edge of commercial media and into the uncharted territory of peer support. The moment I started talking about cell configurations, his eyes lit up. Turns out that he flies R/C planes, too and he'd had exactly the same problem. "And then I couldn't even find any blogs so I ended up on bulletin boards!" I complained. He nodded sympathetically: "RCGroups". Yes, him too. And there, just before we dashed off to our gates, two otherwise mainstream professional guys had a Long Tail moment.
There are countless niches like this, each one an opportunity for someone to build a micro-business or just a resource to satisfy a demand, bringing powerful social media tools such as wikis and blogging to specialist communities that already exist in less easy-to-navigate form. It's going to be fascinating to watch this rich world of niche culture emerge around us, simply because it's what we want and need and now there's nothing to stop us from doing it ourselves.