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The Killer App March 17, 2010

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software development, Software platforms.
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Having read just about all of the technology trade literature over the past decade (and having written more than my share of it), the conventional wisdom was that the reason an application development boom wasn’t happening in the mobile phone market was that there was no “killer app,” an application everyone had to have.  Think the spreadsheet or the word processor on the PC.  By itself, it justifies the purchase of the underlying hardware in terms of the value it delivered.

And it seemed true; for years, the phone market limped along with little excitement and almost no applications.  Every once in a while, Microsoft or Symbian would release a new version of their mobile OS, and there would be a brief flurry of speculation as to whether this version would push the development of applications for phones.

But the iPhone put the lie to the notion of the killer app.  It sold like hotcakes even before there was much in the way of applications for it, and despite a high price and single network provider.

Let me be clear here; phones have had 32-bit processors for years before the iPhone.  Windows Mobile was a 32-bit OS from the get-go.  As was Symbian.  But the iPhone blazed a trail that none of the others could; once the gates were open, application development for phones became the hottest trend in software.

A part of it was certainly that the iPhone and its OS were readily identifiable.  Up until then, phones were branded by the network carrier, with some recognition of the underlying make and model, and no visibility of the OS.  Apple turned that model upside down.

But the primary reason was that the iPhone did, in fact, significantly advance the usability of the phone, so much so that using the phone to actually talk to people has now become a secondary use.

My conclusion is that the phone market never needed a killer app.  Instead, it needed a killer phone.  And that likely has opened up the building of an entirely new industry for software.

Of course, I can argue that we should be careful what we wish for.  It’s only a matter of time before the most popular phone and device operating systems are awash in viruses, unneeded applications, random errors, and a boot-up time that can be measured in months.  Don’t tell me that’s just a Windows problem; Windows may have been particularly vulnerable because it contains loads of legacy code, but any popular platform is going to attract hackers attempting to prove their mettle or pinch money or personal info.

But the genie is out of the bottle, and we will take the bad with the good.

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