The “killer app” may be dead but we still need a “founder app”

For many years, in many conferences, whenever a new technology or service was discussed the cry went up “yes, but what’s the killer application”? This was based on the observation that voice calls were the key reason people bought mobile phones (at the time) and that voice calls were well over 95% of the revenue. By analogy it was assumed any new service or technology would have a similar dominant application that needed to be identified and targeted to get the technology off the ground. Sadly, killer apps turned out to be few and far between and after failing to identify many, most proponents of new technologies took the easy route out by proclaiming that there was no killer app, just lots of small ones that added together justified the investment. The Apple Apps Store seems to be the apotheosis of this concept – the final nail in the coffin of the killer app.

 

But while it may be true that a new technology can be justified by multiple applications, there remains the tricky problem of getting something off the ground for which the use is unclear. Take near-field payment systems. The idea of using the mobile phone as a payment and identification mechanism has been around for years and tried a few times without success – there is little point having the payment capability in the phone if there are no shops that allow payment with it and no point equipping shops if there are only a few phones with the technology. This changed with the advent of the Oyster payment system in London (and similar in some other major cities). Now people had Oyster cards that could be used for payment elsewhere making the deployment of readers sensible. And as readers were deployed, building the card into the phone had obvious benefits. Thanks to Oyster, near-field payment is off the ground and may enter a virtuous circle where it rapidly becomes mainstream and then ubiquitous. Oyster is unlikely to turn out to the killer application – or even the largest application by value – but it was big enough to get things started.

 

The same can be seen in multiple other areas. With BlueTooth it was the wireless headset that persuaded people of its value. BlueTooth is now much more widely used for a huge number of applications. With WiFi it was home connectivity to a broadband connection – other devices are now camping onto this. But with technologies such as Zigbee and UWB that founder application is still to be identified. This is one of the reasons why forecasting the success of technologies can be so hard – they can languish for some time until a large organisation, Government or industry decides to adopt them for a particular application which then gets them onto the virtuous circle that leads to widespread adoption for multiple applications.

 

So ask not what the killer app will be but look instead for the founding application.