In search of the iPad’s killer app

March 14, 2012
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First some history. It’s unusual for a hit computer not to have a killer app driving demand. The Apple II didn’t kickstart the personal computer revolution till VisiCalc, the first electronic spreadsheet, came along. Likewise, Lotus 1-2-3 was the killer app for the IBM PC. Email unquestionably made BlackBerry smartphones a staple of business and easy-to-use mobile browsing helped the iPhone essentially create a new industry. 

One could even argue that another type of killer app vaulted the iPhone's success even higher, the App Store, the wildly popular online storefront for acquiring mobile apps. 

So what’s the killer app that’s driving millions of iPad sales? And could there be one already percolating for Android and Windows 8 tablets? 

Dan Bricklin knows about killer apps having co-created what many regard as the first one for personal computers, VisiCalc, back in the 1970s. (And guess what, he’s still at it. Bricklin’s Note Taker HD is a popular writing app for the iPad). 

Bricklin says there are really two kinds of killer apps. There’s the kind like VisiCalc that justify the purchase of the computer (before his program, spreadsheets and what-if calculations were done by hand on paper or on expensive time-shared computers). Another example is PageMaker on the early Macs that helped create a whole new desktop publishing industry. 

“The other kind gets you started using the computer or a new OS to better appreciate how it can help you,” says Bricklin. For example, he credits the decision to include Solitaire in Windows 3.0 as a major help in getting millions of users comfortable using Microsoft’s then new operating system. 

Apple did something similar with the first Mac, bundling MacWrite and MacPaint to show  off what the new computer could do. 

But a focus on one particular app can be limiting. If everyone say comes to believe the iPad is great for watching movies, well, maybe folks who don’t watch movies won’t be interested. 

This is where Bricklin says Apple’s “there’s an app for that” campaign for the iPhone was brilliant because it’s really the variety of niche apps, the so-called long tail, that can drive a device or new operating system’s popularity. And of course the iPad was able to hit the ground running at its debut two years ago because it could run so many of the apps first developed for the iPhone. 

Killer apps aplenty

Rick Altman, author and host of the Presentation Summit, agrees Apple has been smart to keep its devices open to all sorts of different applications. 

“I would say that the big gamble Apple took with the iPad is that its developers didn’t really know how consumers would use it. In many ways, they left it up to us to figure out what its purpose and application is, says Altman. 

“So now you see restaurant servers take our orders with it, hotel sales managers show rooms and suites to meeting planners with it, and shoppers can even dress up virtual manikins on the iPad,” he adds. “Meanwhile, the big mainstream apps are playing catch up (hence, no version of PowerPoint yet on the iPad and only a crappy one of Keynote).” 

What grown-ups like to do

But if Altman had to pick his killer iPad app, he’d say it’s video. 

“The iPad is the first 'not-a-computer' device that allows you to comfortably watch movies, YouTube videos, and other rich visual media,” he says. “Only kids can watch an entire movie on their smartphones; only teenagers would think of playing a video game on their smartphones. But we grownups can actually do those things on an iPad.” 

Todd Barr, CMO at Alfresco and a speaker at the upcoming TabTimes Tablet Strategy conference, points to annotation or markup programs as overlooked apps that greatly increase the value of tablets for business and professional users. 

Ask yourself this: how much time do you spend editing other people’s content vs. creating content? If you are a manager, it might be the majority of your time – which means a tablet could save you a lot of time,” Barr said in a recent article. 

A study by NPD-In-Stat earlier this year found email is by far the most dominant tablet application for business users. However, the study also supports Bricklin’s point about the appeal of niche apps. 

“When you dig into the data, you find a plethora of strong niche uses arising, said NPD’s VP of mobile research Frank Dickson. “When business tablet users are asked to list ALL the applications they use, note taking, for example, is listed as the second most popular application.” 

Others say games have the potential to become the killer apps for tablets. The trend was very much in evidence at the recent Game Developers Conference where TabTimes contributor John Gaudiosi reported there was “ample proof that ‘hardcore’ video games will play a more pivotal role in the success of tablet sales” 

While gaming is already popular on tablets, new technologies promise to enhance the portable gaming experience even more. “The next wave is sensor bars, driven by built-in cameras, or voice response, but my gut feel is the camera-driven wave is next for mobile gaming,” said Digital World Research video game analyst P.J. McNealy. 

And the winner is …

For now, no one can say definitively what the killer app for the iPad or any other tablet will be — or if a single megahit or class of app ever emerges. Different strokes for different folks as the saying goes. 

In the case of the iPad, Altman puts it this way: 

We users largely determined how the iPad is to be used, and that’s the actual definition of ‘application.’ I guess you could say that we’re the killer apps.” 


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