Cocooning on the Canyon

A Tale of Travel - 1

May 1, 2002

Killer Applications


Killer whales are rather large dolphins that do not kill humans and are considered one of the safest marine mammals (they do kill other, smaller whales). Killer applications do not kill much of anything.


Killer applications (often called Killer Apps) are mostly software programs (but could be most anything) that are wildly successful. In today’s parlance, an application is anything that runs on a computer, typically software programs. Killer apps are programs to die for; programs that create a stir, programs that are “must have” and programs that change your life. But, do such things exist?


Yes they do, but they are few and far between. Everyday, hundreds if not thousands of programmers, innovators, entrepreneurs, inventors and charlatans work hard to create the next killer app. All of them, even the much hyped ones are fated to become failures. Think of the umpteen things that the media has promoted as “things to come” that will make life easier, or cheaper or more fun. For the past 20 years we have had the coming of HDTV (television with better pictures) and videophones. The technology exists, but no one cares. WAP was invented to be a killed app; a method of making cell phones browse the web. It works, but definitely not a killer app. IP-telephony has been much talked about, hardly anyone uses it. The PDA (or palmtop computer) was much touted, and even gained some acceptance, but it is still a far cry from a killer app.


Yet the killer apps keep coming. Almost all of them start out as a simple, possibly useless idea (especially the computer based killer apps). An idea that the inventor thinks is worth pursuing just for larks. Then someone hears about it and likes it. Then the friends and neighbors find out. Soon the world is abuzz with people using the nifty toy.


A killer app has to be exceptionally appealing, amazingly useful and totally simple. Consider the telephone—a handset and a dial, it could not be any simpler or more useful. Same thing applies for radio, TV, email and so on. If we look to the past, and beyond computer programs, we can find many examples of killer apps, namely electricity, telephones, automobiles, radio, TV and many more. In some ways, the computer itself is a killer app. A wildly popular TV show is also a killer app that runs on a killer app (the television). The Internet is a killer app and Email is a killer app that runs on the Internet.


The personal computer was designed to be a killer app that almost failed. The first personal computers began appearing about the later 1970s in the shape of almost useless gadgets with names such as MITS Altair and Commodore PET. In those days a computer ran programs that the owner wrote so in order to use it you had to know how to program it, and worse, you had to know what you wanted to program. Apart from simple games, most home computer aficionados did not have much to do on their computers.


Then the computer industry waited for the home computer revolution, a revolution where everyone would possess and use a computer. The two machines that almost sparked such a revolution were the IBM-PC (1981) and the Apple Macintosh (1984). The problem was the lack of any killer apps. The industry kept harping that the machines were very useful, they could be used by women, to store recipes and by men to store bank balances. Ignoring the stereotypes, recipes are better stored on a notebook and bank balances noted on the ledger.


One of the earliest killer apps in the computer area was a program called “Visicalc” (1979). Visicalc was the first spreadsheet, before even anyone coined the word spreadsheet. The concept was simple, the program opens a screen containing rows and columns of cell, much like a rather large ledger. A number or a phrase can be entered into any of the cells. Then the cells can be magically tied together such that some cells are the result of arithmetic calculations on some other cells.


The program opened a screen containing cells, each cell capable of storing a number or phrase. Not only that, each cell could very easily be programmed to display a value that was some arithmetic computation of values entered into other cells. Thus, if a value in one row changed other values it affected would automatically be recalculated and changed. It is a visual calculator.


Visicalc revolutionized the business planning and finance arena. Complex financial situations that took hours to work out could be done in matter of minutes. It was a runaway success, which was later transplanted with Lotus 1-2-3. Eventually Excel from Microsoft killed off all the spreadsheets (it is very a very good application).


The spreadsheet and then the word processor nailed the fate of the personal computer as the gadget of choice for running business. Home users still had very little to justify the expense and the learning curve (Visicalc notwithstanding). But the Internet changed all that. The proliferation of the Internet finally raised the stature of the PC to a killer app.


Today, Email is considered the ultimate killer app. More people use Email than any other program. When it was invented, Email was considered to be useless for the masses. Why would a normal person type a letter into computer and wait for a response when the telephone and normal mail already exist? The assimilation of Email into the real world amazed most pundits.


The Internet and Email was invented in the 1970’s but it was not publicly available. It became accessible to the general public sometime around the late 1980s, but most people had no use for it or did not know about it. Then came the a killer app. Not just a killer app, but also an enabler of humongous proportions—the web browser. The web browser was invented in 1994 and made the Internet a must have. People discovered the Internet because of the web browser, and then people decided that Email is more useful than the web browser (that is what the statistics say).


The Internet explosion or the dot-com frenzy was the quest for creating more killer app built on top of the web browser. A few have succeeded bust most have failed, leading to the dot-com bust. The successful ones include email via web (free email sites), search engines, news sites, reference material and discussion groups.


Like most killer apps, the search engine was created almost by accident. Two graduate students from Stanford set out to catalog the web and created the Yahoo site. The news spread faster than wildfire, making Yahoo the top site worldwide. Today yahoo’s fortunes have changed and the top honors for web searching goes to Google.


The same applies for Ebay, a site created to trade in used Pez Dispensers (a type of candy storage container). The idea not only caught on, but also expanded and Ebay is the world’s largest auction house for most used merchandise, with sales in the billions of dollars.


What is the killer app on the Internet today? Many analysts claim it is the matchmaking sites. Methods of finding a partner rank as one of the greatest successes of the Internet (of course, it was not designed to be). Matchmaking sites allow a person to post his or her personality traits, pictures, likes, dislikes, wishes and other personal information on a public site, all with a very simple interface. Then other people can search the advertisements looking for age ranges, location and other attributes. The pictures and the lengthy descriptions are of course much superior to newspaper advertisements. One of the larger matchmaking sites ( has over three million current postings from every corner of the world, and about half a million new postings per month.


Once a person finds someone he or she thinks is interesting an Email dialog can start up. From Email, the relationship graduates up to IM (or Instant Messaging) and maybe even Internet based videoconferencing. Supposedly dating and marriage are quite common outcomes.


IM is yet another killer app, popular beyond expectations. IM is like instant Email, two people can simultaneously converse by typing short messages on the keyboard. At first it sounds like a stupid idea, why converse via typing? But the public loves it and wants it and IM is one of the most popular features of the Internet (possibly second to Email).


The history of killer apps is quite depressing. If you think something might be a killer app, it will not be. When you think something is a dumb idea, it probably is, but a few of these dumb ideas blossom into the jewels that everyone likes and cannot live without. No one ever predicted Email, IM and matchmaking would be the hottest thing on the technology front, today.



Partha Dasgupta is on the faculty of the Computer Science and Engineering Department at Arizona State University in Tempe. His specializations are in the areas of Operating Systems, Cryptography and Networking. His homepage is at