The Killer App

In order for a technology to be successful, it has to have a killer application. There has to be something that it does that people want so badly they’re willing to go out and buy the technology just to do it.

Visicalc Screen ShotIn the days of the Apple II, it was Visicalc. This concept of an electronic spreadsheet was so powerful, and it saved so much time, that people were willing to go out and buy a personal computer in order to use this one program. When the IBM PC was launched, its killer app was Lotus 1-2-3. Everybody was running Lotus. Business started second-guessing the giant mainframe in favor of these cheap personal computers, because these little machines could do something that the big ones couldn’t. And that something was very valuable.

The killer application for the Macintosh was desktop publishing. When it was launched, it was the only graphical user interface in town. If you want to design documents, and use different fonts and layouts and graphics, you had to use a Mac. They supported laser printing early on, for a very professional-looking final product.

A decade ago, the killer app was the Internet. I know lots of people who went out and bought computers just because they wanted to get on the “Information Superhighway.” They signed up for dialup Internet access, got email addresses, and spent their lives waiting for pictures to load on the World Wide Wait. But the world was at their fingertips. Information was online. With a quick trip to Yahoo, they could find anything.

It wasn’t until the Internet started playing a big role that computers really gained a foothold in schools. In Ohio, a massive state-level project was undertaken in the mid-90’s to wire every classroom for Internet access. This was followed by a program to help schools put computers in those classrooms. Before that, computers were isolated in math, business, and computer science departments and school offices.

To a large extent, the network is still a killer app. If a device doesn’t connect to a network in some way, it’s of less value. Nobody wants to use a computer that’s not online. It doesn’t matter what’s installed on it or what content is preloaded. I want to connect. That’s one of the first questions I get about the eeePC. Does it have wifi? That’s why people are still talking about the clunky, overpriced Kindle. You can buy books right from the device. And that’s where Apple is heading with the iPod.

Until now, the iPod’s killer app has been portable music. When we moved from cassette to CD, the portable players had to get bigger because the media is bigger. You need pretty big pockets to slip a portable CD player in. The iPod solved the problem of portable music, and launched the online music business at the same time. But cheaper devices have followed, and some of them have significant advantages over the original. Apple is adapting, and products like the iPod Touch are providing significant enhancements that make people not only want to stick with Apple, but to upgrade their current iPods.

But where is the killer app for Vista? What compelling task can only be done with Vista, that’s good enough to make people go out and buy it? Well, Vista has Aero. That’s a prettier user interface. Windows explorer is marginally easier to use. The Start menu has been redesigned. Searching is supposedly better and faster. Default handlers for file types are now assigned on a per user basis. Theoretically, I’m safer from viruses and spyware and other bad stuff. There’s more to this list, but I’m sure you have the point by now. Vista has minor changes, some of which may be useful for some users. But there’s nothing in it that people have to have. There’s certainly nothing there that’s worth the $250 upgrade from Windows XP. Add the facts that most computers running XP need a hardware upgrade to take advantage of Vista’s features, and that many third party devices won’t work with Vista due to driver issues, and you have a serious disincentive to upgrade.

The big problem for Microsoft is that they’re in the same boat with Office. Windows gets everyone to use Microsoft software, but Office actually pays the bills. I haven’t upgraded to Office 2007 yet. Actually, I haven’t upgraded to Office 2003 yet. And the only reason I’m using Office XP is because I got a new computer a couple years ago, and it was faster to install Office XP than to install Office 2000 with its hundreds of updates and patches. Otherwise, Office 2000 did everything I needed it to. I’m sure if I went back to Office 97, I would find that there are some features that I need that are missing. Right, now, though, I can’t think of what they might be.

And this makes sense. The functions most people need from an office suite aren’t that complicated. After more than 20 years of development, Microsoft Office ought to have them pretty well figured out by now. Sure, they keep throwing in more features, but mostly I just need write/save/print. We can do all of that with Open Office, and it’s free. So forget about upgrading. Maybe we don’t need to buy Office at all.

What are the killer apps for other new technologies? With the eeePC, it’s ultimately one-to-one. If I can get closer to one laptop per child in my schools without sacrificing functionality, I’m willing to move away from Dell to do it. SmartBoards allow teachers to draw with their fingers. While I’m sure the interactive whiteboard manufacturers would say there’s more value than that, it ultimately comes down to the teachers controlling the computer with the pointer attached to their hands. They can compose content at the board in front of the class. That’s where they’re most comfortable. And then that content can be saved, edited, remixed, published, and reused.

Unfortunately, though, most of the technology focus isn’t killer-app based. We’re replacing a computer lab in the next couple weeks because the six-year-old computers in it are old and slow. But the new computers are going to be doing exactly the same things as the old ones. So we haven’t really gained any ground. Maybe if we focused more on the killer apps and less on the update cycles, we’d make more progress.

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Author: John Schinker

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2 thoughts on “The Killer App”

  1. What if you could get Office 2007 for $10. That is the cost to our students. Would you pay that small fee to get the de facto market standard or stick with OpenOffice or one of the other free suites?

    I call it the “cost of dinner” decision. I’ll blog about it tonight.

  2. We actually do use MS Office in our schools. The reduced problems with file/feature compatibility are worth the extra $60 it adds to the cost of the machine. Our people know it and like it, and, as you point out, it’s the de facto standard in a world where people assume you’re using it. But I’m not buying into the “there’s a new version, so you should upgrade all your machines and re-train your users” hype.

    Given the options of a forced upgrade to Office 07 or a switch to OpenOffice, I’d strongly consider the open source route.

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