Killer Applications

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Having risen to prominence in the mid-1990s alongside the start of the Internet boom, "killer applications" (or "killer apps") is industry jargon for compelling uses for a technology. Technology developers and industry watchers deem an application "killer" when it drives high sales and wide adoption, possibly even creating whole new markets, paradigms, and categories of technology. In this sense, e-mail is commonly seen as one of the founding killer apps of the Internet because its speed, ease of use, and asynchronous nature appeal to everyone from scientists to high-school kids. The same could be said of graphical Web browsers. By contrast, technologies are often said to fail when they lack a killer app.

Yet part of the glory of a killer app is not simply wild success at the cash register, but relates to having a clearly defined, even narrow, purpose that makes the technology essential for a group of users, not just nice to have. So Internet, and especially Web, access became the killer apps of PC dial-up modems, even while the devices could also be used for peer networking with other PCs or for dialing into electronic bulletin board systems. Internet access became the defining use and made modems standard equipment on many PCs. However, the case isn't as clear with high-speed services like cable Internet and DSL. Certainly, these are also used for the same purposes as dial-up modems. But as yet, there's been no single, noteworthy use that distinguishes high-speed services, other than perhaps a vague notion of large file transfers for musical recordings, media clips, and so on. Thus everything tends to be faster, but for users sending e-mail and doing light Web browsing, the difference may be negligible. For many users in the early 2000s, at least, these benefits were only a moderate convenience relative to their costs.

Because having a killer app translates into having potential for brisk sales, technology analysts and strategists frequently speak of "the next killer app." At times the discussion is framed as a search to identify the next big application in a certain area of technology. An analyst, for instance, might lay out a description of the important technical features of a new piece of technologysay, wireless Internet accessand suggest what features have the most revolutionary potential for new applications. Other observers take more of a determinist view, naming the exact technology and perhaps forecasting how successful it will be in monetary terms. Of course, these predictions don't always pan out; unified messaging, or bringing together voice, e-mail, and fax capabilities, is one concept that has regularly been heralded as a killer app for various software and service providers, but one which has usually disappointed its advocates.


Oftentimes the missing killer app is considered a harbinger of failure. A classic example comes from Apple Computer's Newton. Sophisticated and highly featured for its time, this handheld computer was unveiled with great fanfare in 1993 only to suffer disappointing sales and cancellation a few years later. Some attribute the Newton's demise to being too revolutionary, but its failure to catch onas with other PDAs at the timecan also be traced to a dearth of clear, motivating benefits. It had a variety of uses, including an address book, a word processor, and a calendar, but for the most part didn't offer compelling new capabilities of wide interest.

More recent victims, lacking a killer app, may include DSL and cable Internet services, as suggested earlier. In the early 2000s, following a dash to roll out these high-bandwidth offerings, growth in new subscriptions began to taper off quickly and service providers faced losses and cash shortages in the wake of their heavy investments. Nonetheless they were far from failing altogether, and some believed that demand for high-speed services would rebound once a true killer app, such as movies on demand, reliable voice-over-Internet services, or new interactive video applications, took hold. Similarly, a driving application for wireless Internet services and devices, notably those offering Web browsing on handheld machines, has been called into question. Clearly these benefit certain types of businesses with personnel constantly on the move and in hard-to-network settings, but general devices were not meeting with overwhelming demand, at least in their early stages.


What's more, if e-mail and the graphical Web are the quintessential killer apps, some question how easily developers can in fact turn out new killer apps. Many of the purported killer apps for technologies did not materialize, and it may reveal something about how difficult it is to develop an application that unleashes a new technological paradigm. DSL and cable Internet, absent new capabilities that set them apart from other connectivity technologies, were merely incremental improvements over dial-up access. Few things are as ubiquitous and natural in people's daily lives as simple text messaginga new medium for interpersonal communications. And massive content systems like the Web take extraordinary time and cost to develop. As a result, some observers believe that most of the "next" killer apps will be much more limited in scope and effect than were these classic innovations of the information age; businesses will require strategies to cope when there are no killer apps in the making.


"Broadband Waits for Killer App." Internet Magazine, July, 2001.

Hall, Karen. "In Search of the Killer App." Computer Dealer News, August 3, 2001.

Ladley, Eric. "Without 'Killer App' DSL is Doomed." ISP Business News, May 5, 2000.

Sanghi, Steve. "Achieving Hyper Growth Without 'The Killer App."' Electronic News, September 25, 2000.

Shaw, Russell. "Stalking the Killer App." Broadcasting & Cable, January 15, 2001.

SEE ALSO: History of the Internet and World Wide Web (WWW)