Killer application

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

A killer application (often shortened to killer app) is any software that is so necessary or desirable that it proves the core value of some larger technology, such as its host computer hardware, video game console, software platform, or operating system.[1] Consumers would buy the host platform just to access that application, possibly substantially increasing sales of its host platform.[2][3]


VisiCalc was released in 1979, becoming the earliest generally agreed-upon example of a killer application.

Although the term was coined in the late 1980s[4][5] one of the first retroactively recognized examples of a killer application is the VisiCalc spreadsheet, released in 1979 for the Apple II series computer.[6][7] Because it was not released for other computers for 12 months, people spent US$100 (equivalent to $400 in 2022) for the software first, then $2,000 to $10,000 (equivalent to $8,000 to $40,000) on the requisite Apple II.[8] BYTE wrote in 1980, "VisiCalc is the first program available on a microcomputer that has been responsible for sales of entire systems",[9] and Creative Computing's VisiCalc review is subtitled "reason enough for owning a computer".[10] Others also developed software, such as EasyWriter, for the Apple II first because of its increasing sales.[citation needed]

The co-creator of WordStar, Seymour Rubinstein, argued that the honor of the first killer app should go to that popular word processor, given that it came out a year before VisiCalc and that it gave a reason for people to buy a computer.[11] However, whereas WordStar could be considered an incremental improvement (albeit a large one) over smart typewriters like the IBM Electronic Selectric Composer,[12] VisiCalc, with its ability to instantly recalculate rows and columns, introduced an entirely new paradigm and capability.[13]

Although released four years after VisiCalc, Lotus 1-2-3 also benefited sales of the IBM PC.[6] 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'."[8][14]

The UNIX Operating System became a killer application[citation needed] for the DEC PDP-11 and VAX-11 minicomputers during roughly 1975–1985. 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), requires 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 a time when offering even one free compiler was unprecedented. From its inception, UNIX drives high-quality typesetting equipment and later PostScript printers using the nroff/troff typesetting language, and this was also unprecedented. UNIX is the first operating system offered in source-license form (a university license cost only $10,000, less than a 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 is extensible.[original research?]


One mark of a good computer is the appearance of a piece of software specifically written for that machine that does something that, for a while at least, can only be done on that machine.

— Steven Levy, 1985[6]

The earliest recorded use of the term in print is in the May 24, 1988 issue of PC Week: "Everybody has only one killer application. The secretary has a word processor. The manager has a spreadsheet."[15][16]

The definition of "killer app" came up during the questioning of Bill Gates in the United States v. Microsoft Corp. antitrust case. He 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.[citation needed]

Introducing the iPhone in 2007, Steve Jobs said that "the killer app is making calls".[17] Reviewing the iPhone's first decade, David Pierce for Wired wrote that although Jobs prioritized a good experience making calls in the phone's development, other features of the phone soon became more important, such as its data connectivity and ability to install third-party software (which was added later).[18]

The World Wide Web (through the web browsers Mosaic and Netscape Navigator) is the killer app that popularized the Internet,[19] as is the music sharing program Napster.[20]

Applications and operating systems[edit]

Video games[edit]

The term applies to video games that persuade consumers to buy a particular video game console or accessory, by virtue of platform exclusivity. Such a game is also called a "system seller".

See also[edit]


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