Is the Killer App Dead or Will Apple’s Numbers Revive It?

by Chris Howard Aug 02, 2006

A killer app is one that is so desirable people will buy the system it runs on just to get the application. Does Apple have a killer app in the wings or is the killer app dead?

Computers are past the point were people will buy en masse one model over another simply because of certain features or software.

It’s too easy to create software and get it to market now-a-days. Therefore, if one company was to release some fang-dangled application for Linux or OS X, the masses on PCs wouldn’t care because they’d know that it wouldn’t be too long before someone created a Windows version. That said though, there is still room for an application to have some small effect on market share, to take a small bite.

History of the killer app
When personal computers first came into being there was no consistency, uniformity or compatibility. It was a hotch potch. A computer was a computer. You bought one and didn’t care about transfering files to anyone else’s. You’d type up your job aapplication and print it out on the 9-pin dot matrix printer in very chunky text that was no more impressive than tidy handwriting. But if you were rich you could get a 24-pin printer with its NLQ (Near Letter Quality) mode which was sure to impress any potential employer - although they might think you a total show off who they didn’t really want working for them. People didn’t really care what computer they bought.

And then along came VisiCalc, credited as being the first “killer app”. VisiCalc became the reason many people bought Apple ][ computers. Suddenly people did care about what computer they bought.

It didn’t take long though for a new killer app to hit the block. Lotus 123. Overnight it wiped VisiCalc off the map and at the same time, set in motion the IBM PC industry.

And then another killer app came along to kill off Lotus 123, namely Microsoft Excel. Because of Lotus 123’s massive popularity - at one time accounting for more than 70% of the spreadsheet market -  Excel was more important than Word to the success of MS Office and Windows. Word alone was not going to win the Windows war for Microsoft. Word Perfect despite having similar command of the word processing market, didn’t pose the same threat, because word processors are a fairly generic tool – as evidenced by many Mac faithful being quite content using nothing more than Text Edit. Microsoft needed Excel to kill off Lotus 123 for MS Office (and ultimately Windows) to succeed. If the business world preferred Lotus 123, MS Office was in trouble. But as we all know, Excel was a killer app, not only did it sell MS Office in later years, in early years it even sold Windows before Windows was widely known. I remember a bank I worked for, one department buying Windows 2 just so staff could run Excel.

Does iWork’s Numbers have a halo or a zero?
The killer app on personal computers is long dead and unlikely to ever reappear. But there are still opportunities for applications to take small chunks of market share. To coin a phrase, lets call them “halo apps” because of the halo effect. The halo effect is one where one product casts a positive light on other products leading to an increase in the secondary product’s sales. The iPod halo effect which is puported to have led to an increased Mac sales is one recent well known halo effect.

Interestingly, Apple’s iWork spreadsheet, rumored to be called Numbers (although Charts is the latest rumor), could be one such application. Interesting because for the fourth time in personal computing, a spreadsheet application could be the trigger to send sales and market share the way of a systems maker.

iWork is no MS Office competitor despite the most optimistic wishful-thinking of the Mac faithful, and without a spreadsheet it lacks the necessary punch to be even considered an alternative. But seeing how impressive and innovative Keynote and Pages have been, we can look forward with great optimism that Numbers will be very eye-catching and innovative.(Of course, don’t expect version 1 to have all the bells and whistles.)

There is a chance though that Numbers could be the trigger to send sales Apple’s way. The iLife apps have been halo apps to a small degree, and there’s no reason why Numbers won’t be the halo app to send iWork sales soaring, and lead to more than a few Mac sales to boot.

What do you think? Can Apple get the numbers with Numbers? Will Numbers be a halo app?


  • Interesting comment, Lucky13. I agree too. There’d be a lot less people using Macs if it wasn’t for MS Office. So you could in fact say that MS Office is a “halo app”

    Ditto FCP, Beeb. I don’ think FCP has improved Mac’s market-shareenough to be considered a killer app, but definitely a halo app

    Thanks, Stephen W, I think “hotch potch” is probably my Australianisation of “hodge podge”

    Chris Howard had this to say on Aug 02, 2006 Posts: 1209
  • BB:  Agree with everything you say, and like the way you said it!

    Chris:  Excel was not a killer app.  Well, it did not succeed because it offered things that Lotus 1-2-3 did not.  But Lotus made the most awful mess of the first Windows version of 1-2-3 and they never recovered.  There was a lot of talk at the time that Microsoft deliberately concealed some vital APIs and this prevented Lotus from engineering the Windows version of 1-2-3 properly.  Though this may have been an excuse of course…  By the time Lotus got their act together several versions later, the battle was lost.

    Lotus Notes was hyped by some to be a killer app, and IBM have certainly tried hard with it since buying Lotus.  But my experience of Notes left me feeling that it had been engineered by the 1-2-3 Windows team - I hated it, finding it unreliable, clumsy and difficult to implement effectively as even a mail server in the dial-up environment which was Sydney 10 years ago.

    Pagemaker and/or Quark Express were the killer apps that lit the fuse under desktop publishing and revolutionised the advertising, printing and publishing sectors.  Photoshop was another…

    Microsoft, having disposed of Lotus, consolidated their victory by bundling Word, Excel and then including Powerpoint, Access and Outlook into the Office bundle which we know today.  for Microsoft, Office became the killer app - the “must have” in every corporate office.  Signs are that the era of Office on every PC is coming to an end - its just too expensive and too cumbersome for most users and there are acceptable FREE alternatives, including web-based ones.

    As BeebleBrox has pointed out, there is still room for killer apps in all sorts of niche markets.  Apple may yet produce one or more killer apps for the home user marketplace, as they move to integrate and simplify the domestic digital media technologies.

    It is hard to imagine that anyone would build a killer app for the Mac platform, and NOT create a version for Windows.  You would think that if there was a major market for such a solution, someone else would move quickly to fill the gap.

    I was going to say that the market is too fragmented now for a killer app to appear and be essential to everyone’s work or recreation time.  But, as Mr Infidel has pointed out, the iPod/iTunes combination has done just that - so i guess we have to just wait and see what the creative genii at Apple come up with…

    sydneystephen had this to say on Aug 03, 2006 Posts: 124
  • Sydney, you’re correct. The other side of the iPod equation, of course, is iTunes (one is admittedly can’t dance very well without the other) and how iTunes + iTMS have been a massive “killer app” for Apple. Need I say more?

    But, Sydney, you are too kind. Call me by my first name next time: Robo. Everyone else does… wink

    Robomac had this to say on Aug 03, 2006 Posts: 846
  • What I read that I agree with is that the killer app is comboware, both software and hardware. With iPod/iTunes, Apple is selling a (partial) solution to a big problem: How to get tunes by anyone easily, cheaply, and even legally. Even Apple’s partial solution makes big buck. Call it the eighty percent solution. That said, the next big problem is telecommunications: How to converse with anyone, anywhere, easily, cheaply, visually, and legally. Yep, it’s the iPhone/IChat/.Mac solution: Wireless voip. Can’t wait.

    Steve Nagel had this to say on Aug 03, 2006 Posts: 3
  • I’m having a hard time seeing how the iPod+iTunes combo is a killer app as it relates to computers as it doesn’t compel you to buy any particular system.  In fact, I’d say it’s a given that anyone who buys an iPod already has a computer, and that fortunately the iPod is likely compatible with that system, be it Windows or Mac.

    One could argue for the halo effect, I suppose, although there’s no real proof of any causal link.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Aug 03, 2006 Posts: 2220
  • It just occurred to me where killer apps do still exist quite, and quite regularly:  Gaming consoles.

    My brother basically got an X-box 360 for Fight Night.  That’s textbook killer app.  And there are other titles so compelling that they encourage the buyer to get a particular system.  I want the PSP just to play GTA multiplayer.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Aug 03, 2006 Posts: 2220
  • BB: I bought my Mac because iTunes didn’t rip songs cleanly on my Compaq notebook.  If I did anything else while it was ripping tracks I ended up with an unplayable track.  In fact, I still have more than a few on my iPod - they are hard to get rid of when you have 30 days of music to wade through…

    Music is a big deal for me - and the iPod a revelation…  It didn’t seem at all strange to buy a computer because it worked properly with iTunes.

    I was right - the Mac rips music perfectly, and, well, you know the rest…

    So, in my case at least, iPod/iTunes definitely was a killer app.

    sydneystephen had this to say on Aug 03, 2006 Posts: 124
  • Killer Apps are probably past though I have to agree with the comment
    “Pagemaker and/or Quark Express were the killer apps that lit the fuse under desktop publishing and revolutionised the advertising, printing and publishing sectors.  Photoshop was another…”
    and although they were available for Windows they always worked better on Macs…

    Quoting another poster:
    “On another note… I think the killer app functionality is still waiting in the intersection of groupware, .Mac, mobile devices, and always on connectivity. Another might be a simple function like NEVER having to say “damn, it’s on my computer at home”, but rather having access to your system from anywhere (via iChat perhaps?)”

    I have for a long time waited to see an application/device that gives you the /true/ ability to have a desktop and a laptop and then a smaller device that is more than a Newton/Palm and less than an “Origami” device… the Nintendo DS seems a very good form factor for such a tool - but one that serves as a sort of micro laptop but allows you to easily get access to your laptop or desktop without the current fiddling of SSH or VNC or VPN.

    Yes - I can use SSH to access my home Mac from my iBook or my work G5 tower via my VNC but I want something easy and quick and in a DS style “Diary Book” that holds very little on-board but is a remote “satellite” for my main system. I could see the “Super iPod” perhaps fulfilling this role if it kind of rolled iPod and Newton into something above iPod and below Mac Book… A tool that makes your network accessible everywhere. Especially places you might not want to be fussing with a “notebook/laptop”.

    In the forthcoming always on everywhere network we are promised the first to produce a really good home/work/desktop/laptop/network access pocket device that can really cut it will have the “killer app” (even if it is not actually an App but a solution…

    Serenak had this to say on Aug 03, 2006 Posts: 26
  • I don’t see the iPod/iTunes as a killer app, killer tech or killer anything.

    The way I look at it, a killer app must cause a huge shift in buying trends. Mac market share has barely hicced since the iPod arrived. The noticeable upswing of late is more attributable to the arrival of fast notebook and Intel.

    This is why i coined the “halo app” phrase.

    iPod/iTunes is a halo app/tech. It casts a positive light on the Mac which encourages some people to buy the Mac - but not in earth shattering numbers.

    Ditto FCP, ditto iLife and ditto iWork 07

    Beeb is right about the games consoles though. There do seem to be games in that market that have brought massive sales.

    The next real “killer app” is coming from Nintendo. The Wii controller. That is going to sell consoles in record numbers.

    Chris Howard had this to say on Aug 03, 2006 Posts: 1209
  • “Halo app” is a slightly unfortunate term when you consider that Halo [the game] is widely regarded as the </i>killer</i> app for the XBox!

    While we’re on semantics, I strongly disagree with this:
    Ditto FCP, Beeb. I don’ think FCP has improved Mac’s market-shareenough to be considered a killer app, but definitely a halo app.

    A “halo app” (cf “Halo app”) seems to be one which casts a “generalised positive light” on the platform that increases its appeal for the majority of computer users. FCP does not do this; it casts a very specific but absolutely killer-strength positive light on the platform, but only for a minority of users.

    Don’t get me wrong, your term halo app is a good one, but it doesn’t account for every great app that isn’t “killer” in the sense that it doesn’t make the platform an order of magnitude more appealing for the majority.

    Hence I propose the following definitions:
    1. “Killer app” - An application so desirable/useful/innovative that it single-handedly increases the sales of its supported platform by a large margin, becoming foremost among competitors.

    2. “Niche-killer app” - An application used by a small demographic, but one of such quality that for that market it single-handedly increases the sales of its supported platform by a large margin, becoming foremost in its competitors. Although this effect is not as impressive as with a killer app, niche-killer apps garner strong followings that are beneficial in their own right.

    3. “halo app” - An application of good quality, perhaps even better than all its competitors, that adds to the overall attractiveness and usability of the platform. The reasons preventing a halo app becoming a killer app may be: that competitor apps are adequate/the extra quality may not add enough to the actual functionality; the app is in an area that is not crucial or revolutionary; or it may be simply a good example of such an app rather than one which redefines and revolutionises ways of working with its quality of build and design.
    The actual effect of halo apps in terms of increasing the marketshare of a platform remains a subject of debate, owing to the inherent difficulty in attributing buying decisions to single instances of halo apps; difficulty that results from the fact that a halo app is one which only adds to the overall quality of the system, rather than holding the ability to overwhelmingly sway a purchasing decision in the way that a killer app can.

    Benji had this to say on Aug 03, 2006 Posts: 927
  • I don’t see the iPod/iTunes as a killer app, killer tech or killer anything. -CH

    Maybe not in the traditional sense of the “killer app” as Ben noted above. Now any modern killer app must now transcend a particular market segment (e.g. the Mac market) and swallow the whole industry (the computer industry).

    Of late, there hasn’t been a product or a combination of products such as the iPod + iTunes that has caused a magnitude of shift in the industry. Just look at Microsoft’s past and upcoming responses to the iPod. The horizontal integration idea did not work so they now must dubiously duplicate Apple’s playbook. Do you think they have any ideas how to run this game? We’ll just see.

    So, not just the computer industry but also the bigger CE industry - where Sony and Samsung are busily trying to figure out a winning battle plan. Oh, how these duo have failed insofar since 2001 in cracking the iPod market share. Only Sony with a lock on its music business in Japan limits collateral damage from iTunes there, but I doubt this will last if Sony can’t match the iPod’s novelty attraction soon.

    All this from a humble and unassuming pair of iPod + iTunes. You have to make a separate “killer” category, Ben, for the iPod+iTunes combo is a super “killer app” no matter what Chris thinks. Sorry Chris.

    The way I look at it, a killer app must cause a huge shift in buying trends. -Bbx

    Go to a nearby brick-and-mortar Apple Store. Spend an hour and just watch and observe. Look at the demographics. Take notes…Have a soda - the “geniuses” won’t mind - I do it all the time…

    Need I say more?

    Robomac had this to say on Aug 03, 2006 Posts: 846
  • Not sure Robo you’ve convinced me the iPod/iTunes has made any noticeable dent in the Windows marketshare.

    I must add, I have been a bit loose. I am only referring to the computer market. Without any doubt the iPod was a killer in the MP3 player market - and still continues to be.

    Nice piece Ben. I did enjoy the little conflict with Halo a killer app, and halo apps. smile

    Chris Howard had this to say on Aug 03, 2006 Posts: 1209
  • Robo - my nearest Apple Store is… um…. Is there any in Hawaii? smile

    Chris Howard had this to say on Aug 03, 2006 Posts: 1209
  • Here’s the difference between a “killer solution” like iPhone/iChat and the iPod/iTunes comboware: This time Apple simply doesn’t make it available to Windows users. Or it at least delays long enough to ascertain what kind of pull the iPhone has before letting it loose. (In the case of iPod, Apple was quickly prepared to go with a Windows version.) And so what if it doesn’t work out. What’s to lose? Maybe it simply succeeds as did the iPod and pays the bills for the next five to ten years. Maybe it’s the third comboware winner, a game device, that finally turns the tide.

    Steve Nagel had this to say on Aug 03, 2006 Posts: 3
  • There’s a story I found recently on digg that was quite short and sweet, essentially saying that someone came up with an app for game devs to quickly port their windows games to intel macs so that it wouldn’t require them to rewrite the code anymore and so the costs required and the time to market would be drastically reduced, thus leading to a possible flood of Mac Games within the next few months, just in time for the christmas rush.

    To me, this is the killer app right here.  All of a sudden all of the great windows games are available on the mac within 3-6 months or even simultaneous ala Blizzard as opposed to 12-18 months for a fraction of the games made (most of which are from EA, which tend to be sub-par). 

    Give intel some time to get the integrated graphics to be decent in terms of 3d gaming and all of a sudden the Mac Mini is the be all end all pc gaming console/media center/web browser for the living room.  Then all you’d need is a decent systme for turning it into a DVR and you’d be set.

    Since I’ve got a power mac, I won’t be able to benefit from this sort of move until I upgrade, which won’t be all that soon.  But if I were to get a new mac, now I wouldn’t have to worry about spending money on a copy of windows to play all of them wonderful windows games on my mac, so woot to that.  No woot though to the death of ppc mac gaming, which this would likely lead to as I wouldn’t think that this process would lead to many more universal binaries.  Oh well.  All in the name of progress I suppose. 

    here’s the tinyurl for the news story:

    and here’s the tinyurl for the new killer app:

    Chicken2nite had this to say on Aug 03, 2006 Posts: 79
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