The Holy Grail of Development and Design

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In Arthurian legend, the knights of Camelot—Lancelot, Galahad, Percival and others—sought after the Holy Grail with single-minded purpose. However, many literary experts maintain that the true object of their quest wasn’t actually the Holy Grail: According to them, the chalice was, in fact, a metaphor that represented the virtuous life. Similarly, the killer application (or killer app) is a rhetorical expression of sorts, which can be applied to any particular feature of a product or service that has extremely broad appeal, so much so that consumers will buy the whole package just for that one element. This term is frequently employed in IT development and design to postulate an ideal: an application that is technically sound and possesses incredible commercial allure and functionality.


“Killer app means everyone, without exception, has both a need for it and a desire to use it,” said John Ragosta, vice president of e-commerce and Web applications provider BizAtomic. “It makes a significant impact on an individual’s productivity and, in the business world, enables small companies to compete with larger companies that in the past they could not.”


History of the Killer App, and the Killer App in History


The term “killer app” first came into the IT argot during the mid-1980s. It was applied to the Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet program, one of the applications for the IBM personal computer, when observers realized it was almost single-handedly driving that PC’s sales in the enterprise space. Killer app also was used—somewhat retroactively—to describe the role VisiCalc played in the retail success of the Apple II computer.


In their book “Unleashing the Killer App: Digital Strategies for Market Dominance,” authors Larry Downes and Chunka Mui discuss the extraordinary impact these kinds of applications can have on technology in particular and humanity in general. They posit that while other systems that comprise civilization (society, government, business) progress at incremental rates, technology proceeds forward exponentially. These technical advancements—which are driven largely by killer apps—tend to dislocate all of the other systems, which move at a relatively slower pace.


“Law, for example, evolves to encompass the unique features of new technologies, but it does so at an agonizingly slow pace, as anyone who has studied railroad, banking or telecommunications law can attest,” wrote Downes and Mui, who added that technological change follows the track of Metcalfe’s curve, which states that the more people who use a technology, the more valuable it becomes. “Once there is a critical mass of users, the rate of change—what you might think of as the disruption index—accelerates exponentially.”


Varieties of Killer Apps


In addition to the spreadsheet, Ragosta included the personal computer, word processing, desktop publishing, Web browser and search engine in a list of examples of killer apps. One of the reasons the Windows operating system is so popular is that it incorporates so many of these components, which makes it sort of a killer bundle. “Killer apps tend to be horizontal in nature, hence can be used by everyone,” he said. “However, any given industry can also have a killer app within their narrow focus.”


Therefore, from a design and development perspective, killer apps will fall into roughly three scenarios, he said. These include:



  • Application design and development professionals work in an industry with precise functional requirements. A killer app already exists, but they are trying to design a better version. Ironically, sometimes they try to make it better by adding more functionality and end up adding functionality that does not add enough value to justify a user switching.
  • There is no killer app in their industry. In this case, developing one may become their entire objective. This task is usually taken up by a new startup company with industry knowledge.
  • They decide to develop the next spreadsheet, which does not exist yet. Their thought would probably be focused on a horizontal application.


The Killer App Moves Into the Mainstream


In recent years, the term “killer app” has become such a well-known part of the general parlance that it’s now employed in marketing taglines targeted at a broad consumer audience. Additionally, it’s been used in contexts that go far beyond its original meaning, from discussions on historical developments like the steam engine to arguments in favor of love in business relations (in Fast Company magazine—read it here: These variations are just fine by Ragosta.


“Killer app means everyone needs it, wants it, and it provides the ease-of-use required for the masses to use it,” he said. “Killer app has been in the vocabulary long enough to be properly understood. As a result, it is not misapplied or misconstrued. When the term was coined, it could just as easily have been called a ‘silver bullet app’ or the ‘universal app.’ Culture determines if it is properly applied, and killer app meets that criterion.”


For application developers, though, the phrase will always apply the next big program or feature that everyone has to have. As long as people continue to ask “What’s the killer app?” nearly every time a new product rolls out, the professionals who conceive and design them will carry on the quest for this elusive objective.


Brian Summerfield is Web editor for Certification Magazine. He can be reached at

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