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Searching for a ‘killer app’ is usually futile

As soon as I read the title of Techcrunch’s Microsoft About to Open Surface For Developers in Search For Killer App I thought, uh-oh, that doesn’t bode well for them.  They have been publicly working on Surface for over a year now and this announcement simply tells me they haven’t found a good application themselves.  The demos that I’ve seen haven’t blown me away with their commercial potential.  They’ve looked pretty cool, but that is about all.

More generally when people start talking about searching for ‘the killer app’ I start wondering if there will ever be a meaningful application at all.  It is often the last vanguard of hope for those in possession of technology infrastructure assets for which they are struggling to find customers.  We saw it most commonly in the mobile internet arena in the 2002-06 period, and there weren’t many companies that came through that successfully.

A visit to Wikipedia really hammers this point home.  In the entry for killer app there is a section on ‘killer applications and wireless networks’ which features the following list of services:

  • Google Maps on iPhone 3G with GPS
  • News and Weather SMS Subscription services
  • Email, Skype, Live! Messenger (SMS forwarding).
  • Electronic Banking and Money Management
  • Movie Showtimes and Ticketing
  • In Japan, cellular subscribers can “call” vending machines to purchase something and have the item billed to their accounts.

All these are interesting enough in their own right, but none of them come close to deserving the description ‘killer’, IMHO.

Rather than searching for killer applications (or worse, hoping someone else will do that for you) I think the smarter way forward is to find a decent application yourself, build it and then use that as a base to work from – both for yourself and as an inspiration for others.  Most often that first application will be niche.

Going this route provides evidence that the infrastructure works and that applications can be profitably built on top of it – both of these are pretty important if you want other people to commit time and money to your platform.

This is the way that Facebook operated – they built the platform with a few of their own applications (Wall, messaging, poke, etc.) and then opened up to third parties.  In the middleware space Tibco did the same thing when they released their MarketSheet application on top of their information bus back in the 1980s.

I’m sure there are many, many other examples.  There are probably a couple of counter examples as well, but I’m confident that they are far fewer in number.