Often the Holy Grail of independent software developers is to come up with the next Killer App.  Wikipedia defines a killer app as:

“…any computer program that is so necessary or desirable that it provides the core value of some larger technology, such as a gaming console, software, operating system, or piece of computer hardware.”

Often VisiCalc is cited as the first killer app, as the desire for this application was so great that many users bought an Apple ][ just for the ability to run it.

VisiCalc on the Apple II

VisiCalc on the Apple II

Killer apps are good for developers and platform vendors as well for obvious reasons.  In addition, when an application has this sort of effect on hardware sales, it puts the developer in a position of advantage with the platform vendor and can lead to a level of collaboration (for example, unlocking undocumented features of the hardware) that would otherwise be unlikely.

So it makes sense that most developers spend time thinking about “the next killer app”; ironically, this ensures that they will never develop one.

This may surprise some of you but it should not.  There are very few, if any examples of killer apps that have been invented by software developers.  The reason for this is that the source of inspiration for a killer app is a serious need that is shared by many, typically in a area of specialty or a particular profession.

The Video Toaster sold Amigas to almost every American cable station

The Video Toaster sold Amigas to almost every American cable station

A software developer might come up with a killer app that solves a great problem in their own work, but it would only be useful to other software developers and while this might meet the definition of driving platform sales, the volume is not what we would normally associate with the general expectations that come with the term “killer app”.

The more common scenario is that a layman comes up with an idea in the process of their everyday work, and a way that a computer might solve that problem:

“The idea for the electronic spreadsheet came to me while I was a student at the Harvard Business School, working on my MBA degree, in the spring of 1978. Sitting in Aldrich Hall, room 108, I would daydream. “Imagine if my calculator had a ball in its back, like a mouse…” – Dan Bricklin, inventor of VisiCalc

They then engage a software developer (or more often, become one themselves) to construct the idea.  In the most successful examples, the inventor becomes enough of a programmer to build a usable prototype which is then used to lure in more specialized labor, management, etc. to turn the prototype into a product.

So if you set out to create “the next killer app”, the odds are definitely stacked against you, but if you insist I have a couple of thoughts on the subject:

1.  Build a killer app factory
Instead of trying to come up with the next killer app, build a software company that is optimized to fill the role of realizing the primitive prototype of one into a complete, marketable product.  The focus would be on recruiting ideas and on optimizing the product development, maintenance and support cycle.

2.  Diversify your interests
I would hope that most developers are interested in something besides computers.  Explore these areas of your life and how you might improve or alter them through software.  If you are able to do this, then you might just come up with an idea that meets a need for people outside the software development world and as a developer, you have a more concrete idea of the possibilities and limitations of the problems software is best suited to solve and those which it is not.

One final note on the subject: if we go by the definition of a killer app as an application that is so desirable that it justifies buying an entire platform just to run it, then your app should probably utilize a platform that isn’t in everyone’s hands yet, or at least not in the hands of your primary audience.

If you were to write an app for Windows, and the audience was corporate business users, while your application may be popular it is probably not going to increase hardware or operating system sales noticeably.  On the other hand if you wrote an application for Windows that made it easier for artists to reach their audience that might be another story.

The key point here being that most “killer apps” happen on emerging platforms that are yet to find where they fit in the software user universe and working with the platforms, even if only for inspiration, gives you an advantage in the quest to write the killer app…

…but you already know that’s impossible, right?