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Hi, I’m Brad Feld, a managing director at the Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.

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The Death of The Killer App

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As long as I can remember, a phrase that I have heard regularly is “what is the next killer app?”  Entrepreneurs and VCs are always looking for the next killer app upon which to build a huge business.  Last month, Richard Nolan and Robert Austin wrote a short article in Sloan Management Review that concluded that “even gifted visionaries [will not be able] to imagine the next killer app.”  They asserted that – as a result of research they’ve been doing with their HBS Internet2 Business Group – there are two critical practices to overcoming impediments to identifying the next multi-billion markets for communication technologies.  They are:

  1. Simply try things out: We are seeing this every day with all the web 2.0 stuff that’s being created.  The new approach – being used by many of our favorite web services – is build, release, test, iterate.  Google has popularized the notion of “beta services” – when everything is “beta”, you’ve got a new paradigm with a short (days / weeks / one month) release cycle that can be quickly iterated on rather than a monolithic 12 – 18 months (or more) release cycle. 
  2. Focus on the information context: This is a little harder to see in practice, but it’s all about “enabling the feedback loop between users and manufacturers.”  Eric von Hippel has been talking about this since the late 1970’s – he’s now calling it “Democratizing Innovation” – if you get both sides deeply involved in the innovation context, better things get created.  Tom Evslin’s been on a Typepad customization rampage – this is a great small example – and I hope our friends at Six Apart are watching.

Nolan and Austin conclude by suggesting “Extrapolation of the present will follow lines less straight and more recombinant than can be deciphered.  In that case, we will need processes and technologies that will allow us to intelligently stumble upon the future.”  Adam Bosworth talked recently about “keeping it simple and sloppy” – this is a big part of intelligently stumbling forward.  Who needs a “killer app” when you can play until something special emerges?

  • http://jackkonblog.blogspot.com Jack Krupansky

    You’ve provided some fine recipes for what to do while *waiting* for the next killer app to emerge, but this sidesteps the critical issue of what processes might actually lead to true killer apps.

    Mindless (or even mindful) iteration, in the past known as “spinning your wheels”, is no more likely to lead to radical breakthroughs than sitting in the library reading histories of past breakthroughs.

    Implicit in emergence is a sense of a radical change. Oddly, emergence and evolution are related, but our common usage of “evolution” in technology implies non-radical change. That should be refered to as “micro-evolution”. Emergence and radical change imply “macro-evolution”.

    Any good killer app needs refinement to grow and accelerate market adoption, but the essence of the “kill-factor” was always there in rev 0.1.

    The “just try it” paradigm is quite valid, but forget about thinking that iteraction will somehow incrementally make up for any “spark” that wasn’t present at rev 0.1. Even if not commercially practical, rev 0.1 needs to cause the eyes of a disinterested observer to light up and say “Wow!” Go for the wow factor on rev 0.1.

    The truth is that we’re now in a fuzzy phase of mini (or micro or even nano) killer apps, such as web services that are neat, cool, and clever (maybe), but don’t have the depth comparable to a PC word processor, spreadsheet, grahical user interface, network, transister, or high-level programming language, or other emergent invention.

    Is podcasting a killer app? Some people (and investors) seem to think so, but is there really something in there that is a true radical difference and “radical enabler” for people, or is this merely one of those micro killer apps?

    – Jack Krupansky

  • http://WWW.lightbox5.com/movabletype/archives/2005/08/just_try_it.html Like It Matters

    Just Try It

    Brad Feld quoting Nolan & Austin on ‘the death of the killer app’: “They asserted that – as a result of research they’ve been doing with their HBS Internet2 Business Group – there are two critical practices to overcoming impediments…

  • Don Dodge

    Killer apps in the old days were defined as software applications that were so good the user would buy a particular hardware/software platform just to run that app. These applications were shrink wrapped and sold through computer stores for $149 and up. Significant software companies were built on the basis of these killer apps.

    VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet, is widely recognized as the first killer app that drove sales of the Apple II. Lotus 123 did the same thing, in a much bigger way for the IBM PC and DOS. Lotus went on to become a very successful software company.

    WordPerfect, Borland, Ashton-Tate (databases), Intuit, Adobe, Aldus Page Maker, Peachtree, Macromedia, and many others introduced killer apps that drove PC sales and built large successful software companies.

    Microsoft Office was the biggest killer app of all time driving massive revenues and profits for Microsoft. Today, Office is a mature product that has more features than most people can possibly use.

    During the late 80′s and 90′s, instead of killer apps, advances in processor speed (megahertz to gigahertz) and operating system features drove people to buy new computers just for the speed and usability.

    AOL and Netscape were the killer apps of the late 80′s and early 90′s. Millions of users bought new computers just to use AOL and Netscape to get on the web.

    Netscape and AOL flooded the market with free CD’s to get people up on the web. Netscape went further and made their browser free and easy to download. This strategic decision changed the software business, and the models for killer apps, forever. In the traditional model Netscape would have been a killer app, shrink wrapped software product sold through stores for $149. Instead it was offered for free and started an irreversable trend.

    Netscape, Pointcast, Hotmail, Real Media Player, AltaVista, Napster, MapQuest, and Instant Messenger were all FREE killer apps, or services, that drove lots of system sales. Millions of kids bought computers just so they could use Napster. But, they were not the traditional shrink wrapped software that generated revenues and built companies. These companies changed the software business models forever.

    Shareware, Open Source, and Java have contributed to the allusion that software is free. Applications like the browser, email, media player, and IM that would have been killer apps are now free services. These trends have changed the business model and economics of the software business.

    It should be noted that computer games were a significant killer app that drove millions of new system purchases and upgrades. Nothing stretches the limits of processors, memory, graphics, and the OS like games. However, games are tending to go off platform to specialized game devices, or online to multiplayer network games. It is doubtful that games will be a big driver of new system sales in the future. PDA’s and cellphones are also alternative platforms for killer apps.

    So, what are the new killer apps? To paraphrase Dan’l Lewin of Microsoft, “the new killer apps will be the old things done in a new way”. Salesforce.com is an interesting example of that thought.

  • http://weblogs.com.pk/fakegeek/archive/2005/08/22/Killer_App.aspx fakeGeek

    Next Killer App ?

    This is the question that you would see Enterprenuers and sometimes great developers asking all the time…

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