What Makes a Killer App?

By Sheppard Narkier February 5, 2014

“The Killer App” is a phrase that resonates with millions of people outside the enterprise IT world. The phrase conjures up images of billion dollar IPO’s, and late night oil burning in an intense, frenzied startup environment.  Most recent stories about killer apps are associated with social media, so the real question is why am I all atwitter about a killer app linked to sustainable advantage for enterprise IT?

Killer App Origins

Wikipedia refers to a killer app as software that is so compelling to consumers that they would purchase whatever platform is required in order to use it. This killer app essentially validates the core value of some larger technology which could include a gaming platform, operating system, or even a programming language. This means that consumers would be willing to pay the price for something that they would normally consider expensive or frivolous just so that they could have the killer app. My bottom line take away from that assessment is that the killer app has reach and influence, and that is a consideration worth exploring.

Shep 2.5.14_1In my 36 years of experience, the first true killer app for the enterprise was the spreadsheet. It changed the way large global businesses operated. When I was a systems engineer for Data General in the early 1980’s, I was asked to install some DG PC’s for a large global financial services client in NYC. I was used to complex configuration assignments involving 16 networked mini-computers that might take 2 whole days, so I was unimpressed with the task at hand. That is until I tried to load the operating system, and then the spread sheet software onto the PC with dozens of floppy disks and almost no room on the hard drive. It took me 3 days to get the configuration right as I loaded and ran programs and then deleted them to make room for the next batch. It was an insane juggling act that was a maze of trial and error landmines. Meanwhile the client was waiting with baited breath for me to finish. I was completely embarrassed about how long I took to get the job done so I asked my colleagues about my experience and they were all undergoing similar problems. This was not an isolated incident, yet the “need” for these underpowered PC’s was growing more urgent.

Killer Apps Changed the World Long Before the Advent of Social Media

When my Herculean installation task was finally completed, the user, an executive in financial modeling sat me down and showed me why he was more than willing to wait. In effect, the spreadsheet could manifest any type of modeling that could be conceived by this user. That user said that the 3 arduous lost days was nothing in the scheme of things because he was now able to write several models and test them out in 1-2 days. IT, then known as MIS, would have taken 6 months and endless meetings, and would have gotten it wrong anyway. OUCH!

Other early killer apps were email and the word processor. Email was a killer app before the commercial use of the internet; instead various internal network strategies were used.  These three apps together forever changed IT and business, for both the good and bad.

The good was the effect it had on direct user involvement. The word processor enabled all roles in an organization to write down their thoughts, format them appropriately, instituting direct, continuous involvement in the creative process. The expansion of content creation apps (e.g. presentation and drawing tools) changed how people engaged in creating content, as groups of stakeholders could collaborate on content while storing reusable elements. Ideas could be iterated through; designs of all kinds could evolve through the direct involvement of all the stakeholders without specialized intermediaries (e.g. an art department or typing pool). Executives became more directly involved in the creation of a company’s messaging, especially as companies became more networked.

There was also the bad side, which included total loss of control over the deployment of applications, hardware, and data by a centralized body. Enterprise IT went through various boom and bust cycles leaving a large wasteland of apps and infrastructure in its wake. This wasteland continues to grow from a massive explosion of unstructured data since those gems of creativity age and never seem to get deleted. Finally, there are millions of once treasured spreadsheet apps without documentation or owners, and are as opaque as lead.

Nonetheless, Killer apps opened a door that will never be shut, so what does it take to become a killer app?

What makes an App a Killer?

The initial Killer Apps introduced into the Enterprise have enabled iterative modeling and creation, from the complex to the mundane, to come of age because the previous impediments to creation had been removed (e.g. typing and hand rendering skills). There are compelling features of killer apps that have remained true for the last 30 years:

Shep 2.5.14_2

  • These apps increase the speed of creation of ideas which could be socialized faster.
  • The upfront commitment of skills and time had been reduced; it was easier to be agile.
  • An idea could immediately be played with, errors and misconceptions could be vetted quicker, and the results of this process could be enacted “in the moment” because the idea’s originators and critics had total control over the resources to make the changes.
  • New ways of thinking and working were conceived once the barriers were lowered, small failures were part of the process that lead to a good end result.
  • The traditional power plays of holding onto information and other gating activities around decision making could be challenged and modified. This was still a cultural and style battle but the playing field had been leveled so upstart thinking not only gained a voice but hands as well.
  • Holistic Adjustment across organizations and industries became inevitable and urgent, with winners and losers more clearly marked than ever before.
  • Older roles and skills had to be deprecated while new roles were established. We don’t have typing pools anymore but we have new types of support roles have evolved.
  • Older processes were disrupted, ignored, or torn down because businesses were forced to change, with expectations that faster response and agility are assumed qualities.
  • Value was expected to be transparent early on with the use of a killer app
  • Older assumptions about how we work had to be redefined (e.g. the entire mental approach to writing a report differs when using a word processor instead of a type writer and pencil).

This new found ease caused considerable disruption across all businesses and IT.

The Next Generation of Killer Apps for IT

The current buzz around Enterprise IT’s rush to the cloud has the look and feel of a killer app pitch. As I mentioned in my last blog the movement to cloud is a deployment choice, not an instant cure for all ills. Enterprise IT needs to embrace the foundational ideas of the killer app, this movement is as much cultural as it is technical. My next blog will show how proper cloud enablement is the next killer app for IT.











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