Aug 15 2005

The Death of The Killer App

As long as I can remember, a phrase that I have heard regularly is “what is the next killer app?”  Entrepreneurs and VCs are always looking for the next killer app upon which to build a huge business.  Last month, Richard Nolan and Robert Austin wrote a short article in Sloan Management Review that concluded that “even gifted visionaries [will not be able] to imagine the next killer app.”  They asserted that – as a result of research they’ve been doing with their HBS Internet2 Business Group – there are two critical practices to overcoming impediments to identifying the next multi-billion markets for communication technologies.  They are:

  1. Simply try things out: We are seeing this every day with all the web 2.0 stuff that’s being created.  The new approach – being used by many of our favorite web services – is build, release, test, iterate.  Google has popularized the notion of “beta services” – when everything is “beta”, you’ve got a new paradigm with a short (days / weeks / one month) release cycle that can be quickly iterated on rather than a monolithic 12 – 18 months (or more) release cycle. 
  2. Focus on the information context: This is a little harder to see in practice, but it’s all about “enabling the feedback loop between users and manufacturers.”  Eric von Hippel has been talking about this since the late 1970’s – he’s now calling it “Democratizing Innovation” – if you get both sides deeply involved in the innovation context, better things get created.  Tom Evslin’s been on a Typepad customization rampage – this is a great small example – and I hope our friends at Six Apart are watching.

Nolan and Austin conclude by suggesting “Extrapolation of the present will follow lines less straight and more recombinant than can be deciphered.  In that case, we will need processes and technologies that will allow us to intelligently stumble upon the future.”  Adam Bosworth talked recently about “keeping it simple and sloppy” – this is a big part of intelligently stumbling forward.  Who needs a “killer app” when you can play until something special emerges?