The ‘Long Nose’ Theory of Tech Innovation

A new technology that’s going to take off is usually hiding in plain sight

Clive Thompson
Published in
5 min readDec 3, 2021


“Robot” by Logan Ingalls

I wrote earlier this week about the difficulty of figuring out whether a new technology is going to be a Big New Thing or remain a pipe dream of die-hard true believers.

It reminded me of a great conversation I had in 2011 with Bill Buxton, a computer scientist and expert in the field of human–computer interaction.

He told me about his theory of innovation: The “Long Nose”.

Most huge innovations emerge gradually, not suddenly

As Buxton’s argument goes, very few major technologies emerge suddenly. Quite the opposite: They’re usually the product of gradual tinkering and experimentation, with engineers and designers puttering around for years or even decades. Things get slowly refined, and the new tech starts being used in real-world circumstances, but mostly in niche areas.

Eventually some mass-market inventor notices these niche uses and realizes huh, this tech really works now. They build it into a mainstream product — which bursts into truly mass adoption.

Or as Buxton put it to me when I wrote about this for Wired in 2011…

“Anything that’s going to have an impact over the next decade — that’s going to be a billion-dollar industry — has always already been around for 10 years,” he says.

What the long nose looks like

Buxton calls this the “long nose,” based on a chart he drew, below. The X-axis is time; the Y-axis is adoption. During the long period when the technology is being refined, it’s not very widespread. Then suddenly it bursts into mass adoption.

You can think of innovation, Buxton argues, as a long nose that very slowly creeps into view.

He described a few technologies that, back in 2011, were regarded — by most press and everyday consumers — as hot new concepts that had been introduced suddenly. One was pinch-to-zoom on the…



Clive Thompson

I write 2X a week on tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer at NYT mag/Wired; author, “Coders”.