Saturday, July 8, 2023

The Importance of Killer Apps

Photo: Apple, Inc.
Every platform requires applications to be considered a true platform, even if it manifests other typical platform characteristics such as shared technology services, customization capabilities, and APIs. However, it is often the presence of a specific application that unlocks new possibilities for users, ultimately driving the platform's widespread adoption and commercial success. This particular application, commonly known as the "killer app," enables users to accomplish tasks or engage in activities that were previously inaccessible or limited. The introduction of such an application propels the platform to new heights, capturing the attention and enthusiasm of users, and cementing its position in the market. The concept of a killer app is widely acknowledged and represents a critical factor in the success of any platform. 

Throughout the history of technology, there have been several noteworthy killer apps that have shaped their respective platforms. In the case of PCs, the spreadsheet application, represented by VisiCalc and Lotus 1-2-3, revolutionized business operations, while home banking (Quicken) brought PCs into households. Additionally, the Internet browser (Netscape Navigator) transformed information access and online interaction on a PC. These killer apps not only fueled adoption but also introduced new possibilities and use cases, solidifying their platforms' success and highlighting the pivotal role of killer apps in technology evolution. 

For smartphones, email emerged as the undeniable business killer app, propelling Blackberry to great success. However, when Apple unveiled the iPhone, they had a broader consumer market in mind. Surprisingly, email was not initially a priority for the iPhone, as evident from President Obama's preference for Blackberry due to its perceived security1. Instead, the iPhone's killer app quickly became its camera, captivating users with its superior quality and ease of use. This was closely followed by the rise of social media platforms, enabling users to connect and share their lives in unprecedented ways. Navigation apps, like Maps and ride-hailing, further solidified the iPhone's status as a must-have device. The presence of multiple killer apps played a vital role in the unparalleled success of smartphones, transforming them into indispensable devices for a wide range of users. 

The killer app for the iPad, or tablets in general, may not be as apparent as in other platforms. Note-taking, while not the most exciting app, has arguably emerged as a significant killer app for tablets. Content consumption, such as watching movies or reading magazines is also very popular but does not qualify as a killer app since these activities can be accomplished without tablets. While it's true that tablets offer a more enjoyable movie-watching experience compared to smartphones, that is not why most people buy them. Other use cases for tablets are specialized for specific industries like warehousing, field service, or artistic applications. These applications, although valuable, lack the broad appeal of a definitive killer app, which explains why tablets have not achieved the same ubiquity as smartphones. 

The killer app for the Apple Watch, in addition to its primary timekeeping function, is undoubtedly health and fitness tracking. I must admit that I am pleasantly surprised by the Apple Watch's tremendous popularity, driven by its emphasis on health. Despite the notion that step counting had lost its allure during the Fitbit craze a decade ago, Apple has managed to strike a chord with consumers. The Apple Watch's extensive health features, such as heart rate monitoring, activity tracking, and personalized workout guidance, have resonated deeply. Apple's ability to identify and fulfill the needs of consumers has solidified their position in the market, leading to the Apple Watch's resounding success. 

Killer apps are not exclusive to hardware platforms; they are also prevalent in software platforms. A prime example is the killer app for Blockchain, which has been cryptocurrency. However, it is disheartening to observe that cryptocurrency has primarily fueled speculative investing rather than addressing tangible issues. Nevertheless, I remain hopeful that we will see the emergence of a new killer app for Blockchain, potentially in areas such as copyrights enforcement or contract management. This would enable Blockchain technology to fulfill its true potential by solving real-world problems and making a substantial impact. 

Another software platform, content management, has long relied on compliance as its killer app, capturing a significant customer base. However, as compliance is only critical to specific market segments such as financial services, government, and life sciences, content management platforms are now striving to convince customers that collaboration is the new killer app. Unfortunately, many customers so far failed to recognize the distinct benefits offered by a content management platform compared to a simple shared folder. The lack of differentiation impedes their ability to accomplish tasks that were previously inaccessible or limited. As the industry evolves, the rise of generative AI introduces intriguing possibilities. It remains to be seen whether personal productivity will emerge as the ultimate killer app, driving the transformation of content management platforms and enabling users to achieve new levels of productivity and efficiency. 

Speaking of generative AI, the current wave of excitement and experimentation is on the verge of giving way to tangible applications that customers are willing to pay for. Numerous application vendors are hastily incorporating generative AI into their solutions. However, the monetization of these capabilities remains unclear. The customers’ willingness to pay for the ability to enhance the quality of their writing might be questionable. Yet it is imperative for vendors to find effective ways to monetize generative AI since running large language models (LLMs) comes with substantial costs. Therefore, vendors have to identify compelling use cases and value propositions that showcase the true potential of generative AI while ensuring its monetization. 

The search for the killer app in spatial computing, the latest emerging platform, is only beginning. It is evident that we have not discovered one yet, which might explain why Meta has faced challenges in making significant progress with their VR headset. The possibility of the metaverse being a killer app exists, although we are likely far from the immersive virtual worlds depicted in books like "Ready Player One" and "Snowcrash”. Gaming could potentially become the killer app, but that would essentially relegate a VR headset to an accessory for existing gaming rigs, not a platform. Entertainment, while intriguing, raises questions about how appealing it would be to immerse oneself in a Taylor Swift concert or the next Jack Ryan episode. Undoubtedly, spatial computing holds promise in immersive training applications, but these specialized use cases may not qualify as killer apps due to their limited reach. Currently, we do not know what application will emerge as the definitive killer app for spatial computing. Nevertheless, considering Apple's impressive track record, it is reasonable to expect that they will eventually uncover a groundbreaking application that propels the adoption and success of spatial computing. 

The provided examples clearly demonstrate the vital role that killer apps play in driving the success and adoption of platforms, be it in hardware or software. These apps have the remarkable ability to unlock new possibilities and engage users in ways that were previously unimaginable. They serve as powerful catalysts, propelling the platform into new markets and ensuring its strategic significance and commercial success. From spreadsheets revolutionizing business operations to email becoming a cornerstone of communication, and from cameras transforming mobile photography to health tracking empowering individuals to monitor their well-being, killer apps have consistently fueled the popularity and widespread adoption of PCs, smartphones, tablets, and smartwatches. Their impact is undeniable, and they serve as compelling evidence of the pivotal role played by killer apps in driving the success of platforms. 

The pursuit of a killer app often proves elusive for many platforms and the lack of killer apps can hinder their progress. Some apps fail to deliver compelling value compared to more affordable alternatives, while others may even lead the platform astray. It is crucial for platform leaders to consider their killer apps as integral to their overall strategy, despite the challenge of identifying and fostering them. Often, these killer apps are developed by 3rd parties, adding complexity to the equation. Nonetheless, the emergence and success of a killer app ultimately shape the success of the platform.  





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