Making a Living in Languages (Redux) part 8: Killer Apps

Last time: “Give ‘Em What They Want,” in which I said that having a desirable application “from the beginning” is necessary to promote a platform.
Now: Sounds good, but how do we go about creating such a scenario? We engineer it!

[This is an excerpt from a Lisp conference talk I gave in 2002.]

If you know how to create a killer app with expanding markets, great. If not, don’t wing it, learn. There’s good literature on creating products that sell well because an identifiable group of people love what the product does for them. I’m thinking of “Crossing the Chasm” by Geoffrey Moore, and “Managing Software Requirements” by Leffingwell, Widrig, and Yourdon. These aren’t the be-all and end-all of every situation, and if you truly know what you’re doing, then of course there’s no reason to be a slave to some marketing book. But if you’re not sure, then it makes sense to at least follow a program that’s been laid out by people who know what they’re doing. I’ve been surprised to find out how many business people think they know better, and then fail in the most basic and well-illustrated ways. I’ve also been surprised how smart engineers can make the same mistake.

There are basic rules for “Killer Apps” – applications that seem to explode in usage, displacing older infrastructure in the process. For example:

Metcalfe’s Law: “The value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of users.”

Coase’s Law: “Firms are created and grow to lower transaction costs.” Corollary: “As transaction costs in the open market approach zero, so does the size of the firm.”

There are books that discuss these in detail. For this discussion I just want to just offer up some desirable product features based on these laws:

Identify the market. Why will they want the product? Not why should they use it if they were smart and perfectly informed, but given who they are, why do they actually seek the product out?

The application should be immediately useful, usually by lowering transaction costs. If it makes it easier for line-of-business people to do their jobs directly, without help from supporting departments, then it may be possible for them to adopt the product individually, without having to go through some institutional IT department big-buy. Netscape would not have caught on in business if its first path to adoption was through enterprise IT managers.

The more people use it, the more value all users get. A beautiful example is the CDDB service used by WinAmp, RealJukeBox, and everyone else. It turns out that title track info isn’t on most CDs, just track length. The CDDB let’s you easily record the title info and times for your favorite CD for your own use, but everyone else benefits by having the info in a public database. Only the first person to use a CD needs to enter the data, and everyone following has titles looked up automatically based on time signatures.

Know how to position the product relative to others so that the selected market can easily understand these messages, and that everyone in the selected group can simultaneously perceive that this is the obvious way things are going. This is what “Crossing the Chasm” is all about.

next: How Do You Make Money?.
Start of nine part series.

About Stearns

Howard Stearns works at High Fidelity, Inc., creating the metaverse. Mr. Stearns has a quarter century experience in systems engineering, applications consulting, and management of advanced software technologies. He was the technical lead of University of Wisconsin's Croquet project, an ambitious project convened by computing pioneer Alan Kay to transform collaboration through 3D graphics and real-time, persistent shared spaces. The CAD integration products Mr. Stearns created for expert system pioneer ICAD set the market standard through IPO and acquisition by Oracle. The embedded systems he wrote helped transform the industrial diamond market. In the early 2000s, Mr. Stearns was named Technology Strategist for Curl, the only startup founded by WWW pioneer Tim Berners-Lee. An expert on programming languages and operating systems, Mr. Stearns created the Eclipse commercial Common Lisp programming implementation. Mr. Stearns has two degrees from M.I.T., and has directed family businesses in early childhood education and publishing.

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