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?


  • i love iwork, to the extent that i deleted office from my mac because of it. (i use neooffice on the rare occasions that i need to work with spreadsheets). however, having a built in spreadsheet app would definitely be cool.
    all this said, no, i don’t think any iwork spreadsheet app will cause any great revolution in mac sales - office is too entrenched, particularly the collaboration aspects of it.

    eiscir had this to say on Aug 02, 2006 Posts: 23
  • MS Office on the Mac is an atrocity.  It’s horribly designed inside and out.  There’s huge demand for a replacement.

    On Windows MS Office works reasonably well.  There’s simply no incentive to switch to another spreadsheet app unless it’s quite revolutionary.

    So there won’t be many conversions to Mac because of Numbers.  But Mac users who sometimes have to use Excel (like me) will be extremely happy with any replacement.

    veridicus had this to say on Aug 02, 2006 Posts: 6
  • The “killer app” does not have to be software.

    When taken with this context, the iPod has to be Apple’s killer app that is changing the how the game is played.

    Look at major CE companies’ fruitless efforts of “killing” the iPod since 2001. With all of this artillery raining down on the iPod, it is ironic that the iPod momentum keeps on growing every quarter - to Steve’s delight, of course.

    The iPod virtually and literally destroyed the Walkman brand. Along the way, it nulled the Rio MP3 player’s first-to-market advantages. How can we not consider the iPod the “killer app”?

    Apple is now busily conjuring up ways to take advantage of this and implement iPod functionalities into their other hobbies - namely the Mac. This is why I have dreamed of the iMac swallowing the entire Mac line in this manner. The iPod will be ubiquitous [if not already] and ALL Apple hardware will be iPod-based and not the other way around.

    There is no turning back now for Apple. They have spun the wheels of becoming an industry domination. All they can do now is either keep the pace or speed it up with more product lines or to possible licensing to other friendly hw vendors.

    Apple must realize that their iPod is the golden “killer” app that will do to M$ and her minions the way M$ used Windows to become, well M$. I just hope that Apple learned all the lessons in the past decade to avoid the same predicament that inundated our much berated Microsoft.

    Robomac had this to say on Aug 02, 2006 Posts: 846
  • This is why I have dreamed of the iMac swallowing the entire Mac line in this manner. -Me

    That should say:This is why I have dreamed of the iPod swallowing the entire Mac line in this manner.

    Robomac had this to say on Aug 02, 2006 Posts: 846
  • I appreciate the first two comments. ‘Numbers’ will not be feature-laden enough to compete with ‘Excel.’ Those who are choosing which spreadsheet to buy will—because MS Office is “entrenched” and “works reasonably well”—be inclined to prefer Excel.

    However, the essence of a ‘halo app’ may not be that it can compete directly with an established, well entrenched software application.

    (1) ‘Numbers’ may be innovative, so that it approaches spreadsheeting in a new [efficient/fun/focused/purposeful] way, and (2) ‘Numbers’ may fill a gap (i.e., spreadsheet) that will allow potential Macintosh customers to be comfortable enough [with iWork] that they will go ahead and make that Mac purchase instead of running back to Dell.

    In this sense, ‘Numbers’ could indeed be a ‘halo app’ if not a ‘killer app.’

    piratemacfan had this to say on Aug 02, 2006 Posts: 1
  • Nice article. I agree that “killer app” is less likely to sell a computer today than it was a few years ago, at least to experienced users. The experienced user already has his or her collection of regularly used applications, such that the purchase of new hardware will almost always be dependant on whether or not the new hardware runs the old applications, rather than on how cool the new hardware is. The exception would be if a new or updated compelling application requires a technological leap in order to have the horsepower to run it (Windows Vista, for example).

    In my case, I just purchased a Palm Treo 700p phone. Why a 700p instead of a 700w? I’ve owned Palm devices for years (after Apple killed the Newton, which I also owned and used), and I have my favorite database and other programs which I really don’t want to have to change.

    “Killer hardware” (such as the iPod) may be a more likely candidate for a compelling reason to purchase a particular piece of new computer than application.

    (BTW, it’s “hodge-podge”, not “hotch potch”)

    Steven Weyhrich had this to say on Aug 02, 2006 Posts: 7
  • I look back to the first days of office app integration, when we could finally embed a spreadsheet within a text document. Great stuff! So my answer to the killer app question is one akin to hypercard, which integrated everything—database, presentation, calculation, and text. An all in one app. Imagine an app that would allow you to do text/image/audio presentations and “report” out segments as you need them. And then imagine that it would export either to iWeb or to the iPod. MMMM. Good!

    Steve Nagel had this to say on Aug 02, 2006 Posts: 3
  • The reason for my PC childhood is that my mother really needed lotus 123 and when it came aviable MSExcel. “killer apps” got my parents getting one PC after the previous one.
    And yeah, indeed, because of the “halo effect” of the iPod i got my first mac.

    nana had this to say on Aug 02, 2006 Posts: 63
  • And yeah, indeed, because of the “halo effect” of the iPod i got my first mac. -nana

    Sounds like my stance of the iPod being a “killer app” added another testimonial truth in the statistics. If the iPod is swaying average PC folks to the Mac, then it is a true “killer app”. But, Nana, I am not saying that you are were an average PC folk. You are too smart not to consider a Mac, after all…

    Robomac had this to say on Aug 02, 2006 Posts: 846
  • Numbers will not be the killer app, but it will fill a very big gap in iWork and will be a big step in allowing Apple to let AppleWorks fall to the side.

    Most important is that it will allow a potential Mac customer to go to the Mac without concerns about needing Office - especially if Apple doesn’t raise the price!  That alone will help sell more Macs, but it won’t release a flood of new customers.

    The next killer product (not app) could be the iPhone, especially if Apple delivers a dynamite design and does a good job of tying it into the Mac with some special features that are not available on PCs - like being able to tag people in your Address Book for downloading to the iPhone.

    MacKen had this to say on Aug 02, 2006 Posts: 88
  • I think it’s unlikely that Numbers will be such a killer app. However, I’m now wondering whether the opposite is possible - could Apple make an easy to use spreadsheet, possibly integrated smoothly with pages, that makes people naturally feel that Excel is unnecessary. ie: Numbers could be really basic in comparison to Excel but do nearly everything people use Excel for, and then leave Filemaker for satisfy other functionality.

    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?)

    Greg Alexander had this to say on Aug 02, 2006 Posts: 228
  • The killer app on personal computers is long dead and unlikely to ever reappear.

    I disagree somewhat.  I got back into Macs mostly because of Final Cut Pro.  If a suitable alternative existed on the PC, I would have been much less likely to have added a Mac to my workflow.

    I’ve certainly enjoyed the other apps and features of my system, but it was FCP that was the deciding factor.

    FCP is a killer app.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Aug 02, 2006 Posts: 2220
  • Excel is the only reason why I need to keep M$ software on my Mac, or use a PC.  If numbers is good enough to replace Excel, it will, however, also need to be really complete for me to be able to exchange files with PC-MS-Excel users ...

    Rup had this to say on Aug 02, 2006 Posts: 6
  • What do you think? Can Apple get the numbers with Numbers?

    The more likely scenario, IMO, is that Numbers will give the Mac faithful an alternative to Excel and one less Microsoft app on their systems.  I doubt very much it will migrate very many, if any, Windows Excel users to the Mac.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Aug 02, 2006 Posts: 2220
  • >>MS Office on the Mac is an atrocity.  It’s horribly designed inside and out.  There’s huge demand for a replacement.>>

    Come on, now. You must be using an entirely different Office app. Office 2004 is a perfectly fine package. I much prefer Word, Excel and Entourage over any Mac alternatives. Pages? No thanks.

    If Office came from any other shop than Microsoft, would the same level of harsh criticism be applied to it? Not likely.

    I’m certainly not alone when I say that, without Microsoft Office, I wouldn’t be using a Mac.

    Lucky13 had this to say on Aug 02, 2006 Posts: 11
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