In marketing terminology, a killer application (commonly shortened to killer app) is any computer program that is so necessary or desirable that it proves the core value of some larger technology, such as computer hardware, gaming console, software, a programming language, software platform, or an operating system. In other words, consumers would buy the (usually expensive) hardware just to run that application. A killer app can substantially increase sales of the platform on which it runs.
One of the first recognized examples of a killer application is generally agreed to be the VisiCalc spreadsheet for the Apple II series. Because it was not available on other computers for 12 months, people spent $100 for the software first, then $2,000 to $10,000 on the Apple computer they needed to run it. BYTE wrote in 1980, "VisiCalc is the first program available on a microcomputer that has been responsible for sales of entire systems", while Creative Computing's VisiCalc review was subtitled "reason enough for owning a computer". Others also chose to develop software, such as EasyWriter, for the Apple II first because of its higher sales, helping Apple defeat rivals Commodore International and Tandy Corporation.
Lotus 1-2-3 similarly benefited sales of the IBM PC and compatibles, just as VisiCalc did for Apple sales. Noting that computer purchasers did not want PC compatibility as much as compatibility with certain PC software, InfoWorld suggested "let's tell it like it is. Let's not say 'PC compatible,' or even 'MS-DOS compatible.' Instead, let's say '1-2-3 compatible.'" Another killer app is WordStar, the most popular word processor during much of the 1980s. Once the Internet became more widely available to consumers, email was seen as a killer app that drove people to purchase computers, even though email is a genre of applications rather than a single "app."
The UNIX Operating System served as a killer application for the DEC PDP-11 minicomputer and VAX-11 minicomputer during roughly 1975—1985 (when Sun Microsystems and Encore Computer became competitive.) Many of the PDP-11 and VAX-11 processors never ran DEC's operating systems (RSTS or VAX/VMS), but instead, they ran UNIX, which was first licensed in 1975. To get a virtual-memory UNIX (BSD 3.0) you had to purchase a VAX-11 computer. Many universities wanted a general-purpose timesharing system that would meet the needs of students and researchers (early versions of UNIX included free compilers for C, Fortran, and Pascal; at the time, offering even one free compiler was unprecedented.) From its inception UNIX could drive high-quality typesetting equipment and later Postscript printers using the nroff/troff typesetting language, and this was also unprecedented for its time. UNIX was the first operating system offered in source-license form (a university license cost only $10,000, less than 1 PDP-11), allowing it to run on an unlimited number of machines, and allowing the machines to interface to any type of hardware because the UNIX I/O system was extensible.
The first recorded use of the term in print was 1987, in PC Week 8 Sept. 107/2. "Everybody has only one killer application. The secretary has a word processor. The manager has a spreadsheet."
The definition of "killer app" came up during Bill Gates's questioning in the United States v. Microsoft antitrust suit. Bill Gates had written an email in which he described Internet Explorer as a killer app. In the questioning, he said that the term meant "a popular application", and did not connote an application that would fuel sales of a larger product or one that would supplant its competition, as the Microsoft Computer Dictionary defined it.
Selected applications for computer systems
The term has also been applied to computer and video games that cause consumers to buy a particular video game console or gaming hardware over a competing one. Examples of a video game killer applications are:
- The first generally agreed example of a "killer app" in gaming is the 1980 Atari VCS port of the arcade game Space Invaders, which quadrupled sales of the then three-year-old console .
- Star Raiders, released in 1979, was considered to be the killer app for the Atari 400/800 computers.
- The port of Donkey Kong was the killer app for the ColecoVision console in 1982.
- The video gaming website GameTrailers considers the Super Mario Bros. games to be the killer app for nearly all Nintendo home consoles, Tetris as the killer app for the Game Boy, Grand Theft Auto III for the PlayStation 2, Super Smash Bros. Melee for the GameCube, and Wii Sports for the Nintendo Wii.
- Computer Gaming World stated that The Legend of Zelda on the Nintendo Entertainment System, Phantasy Star II on the Sega Genesis, and Far East of Eden for the NEC TurboGrafx-16 were killer apps for their consoles.
- John Madden Football's popularity in 1990 helped the Genesis gain market share against the Super Nintendo.
- Sonic the Hedgehog, released in 1991, was hailed as a killer app as it revived sales of the (by then) three-year-old Genesis.
- Street Fighter II, originally released for arcades in 1991, became a system-seller for the Super Nintendo when it was ported to the platform in 1992.
- Myst and The 7th Guest, both released in 1993, drove adoption of CD-ROM drives for personal computers.
- Pokémon Red and Blue could be classified a "killer app" for the seven-year-old Game Boy as a craze evolved around the series in the late 1990s, and it was only available on that platform.
- Pokémon Gold and Silver were released at the height of the Pokémon craze alongside the Game Boy Color, and fueled the sales for the console all the way to the release of the Game Boy Advance two years later.
- Super Mario 64, GoldenEye 007 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time could be considered killer apps for the Nintendo 64, with Super Mario 64 being one of two launch titles for the console and the main factor behind the platform's initial success.
- Quake could be[vague] considered the killer app for 3dfx's Voodoo Graphics 3D accelerator card for home computers.
- Halo is considered to be the killer app for the Xbox console.
- "Killer app". Merrian-Webmaster. Merriam-Webster, Incorporated. Retrieved 14 January 2015.
- Scannell, Ed (February 20, 1989). "OS/2: Waiting for the Killer Applications". InfoWorld. Vol. 11 no. 8. Menlo Park, CA: InfoWorld Publications. pp. 41–45. ISSN 0199-6649. Early use of the term "Killer Application".
- Kask, Alex (September 18, 1989). "Revolutionary Products Are Not in the Industry's Near Future". InfoWorld. Vol. 11 no. 38. Menlo Park, CA: InfoWorld Publications. p. 68. ISSN 0199-6649. Early use of the term "Killer App".
- D.J. Power, A Brief History of Spreadsheets, DSSResources.COM, v3.6, 8 August 2004
- McMullen, Barbara E. and John F. (1984-02-21). "Apple Charts The Course For IBM". PC Magazine. p. 122. Retrieved 24 October 2013.
- Ramsdell, Robert E (November 1980). "The Power of VisiCalc". BYTE. pp. 190–192. Retrieved 18 October 2013.
- Green, Doug (August 1980). "VisiCalc: Reason Enough For Owning A Computer". Creative Computing. p. 26. Retrieved 18 October 2013.
- Clapp, Doug (1984-02-27). "PC compatibility". InfoWorld. p. 22. Retrieved 18 January 2015.
- Bergin, Thomas J. (Oct–Dec 2006). "The Origins of Word Processing Software for Personal Computers: 1976-1985". IEEE Annals of the History of Computing. 28 (4): 32–47. doi:10.1109/MAHC.2006.76.
- Earliest usage cited in Oxford English Dictionary
- Bourgeois, Derek (2001-11-01). "Score yourself an orchestra". The Guardian. Guardian Media Group. Retrieved 2011-05-10.
Many composers bought an Archimedes simply to have access to the program.
- "The Definitive Space Invaders". Retro Gamer. No. 41. Imagine Publishing. September 2007. pp. 24–33. Retrieved 2011-04-20.
- Williams, Gregg (May 1981). "Star Raiders". BYTE. p. 106. Retrieved 18 October 2013.
- Adams, Roe R. III (November 1990). "Westward Ho! (Toward Japan, That Is)". Computer Gaming World. p. 83. Retrieved 16 November 2013.
- Hruby, Patrick (2010-08-05). "The Franchise". ESPN. Retrieved 23 January 2015.
- Fahs, Travis (2008-08-06). "IGN Presents the History of Madden". IGN. Retrieved 2009-03-30.
- Patterson, Eric L. (November 3, 2011). "EGM Feature: The 5 Most Influential Japanese Games Day Four: Street Fighter II". Electronic Gaming Monthly. Retrieved 17 April 2012.
- Craig Glenday, ed (2008-03-11). "Hardware History II". Guinness World Records Gamer's Edition 2008. Guinness World Records. Guinness. p. 27. ISBN 978-1-904994-21-3.