The Search for the 21st Century Killer Applications

April 3rd, 2008

You just know that, in the 1980s, several Mac applications set the standard for the industry for decades to come. How soon we forget that Adobe PageMaker made it possible to do typography and layout on a personal computer — your Mac of course. Combine that with Apple’s LaserWriter and Adobe’s PostScript, and you were able to output essentially what you saw on your monitor.

Between my two radio careers (broadcast and online), I worked in traditional typesetting, and these developments basically put most of the companies I worked for out of work — if they failed to adapt of course. And I imagine a lot fewer layout tables and hot wax machines were sold as well.

Certainly musicians found ways to use a relatively low-cost personal computer to perform the same chores that would formerly require expensive studios to accomplish, and photo retouchers no longer had to take tiny brushes and remove blemishes and red eyes from photo negatives as Adobe Photoshop brought those tasks to the digital realm as well.

Today, some of the names of the programs, other than Photoshop of course, have changed, and they can do more things in a speedier fashion on the supercomputer you have on your desktop or on your lap. But as I perform my daily chores here, I wonder how much has really changed. Sure, my workflow is more attuned to audio editing and blogging than writing books and magazine articles, but the way I approach these tasks is remarkably similar.

Web browsing? The standard was set in the 1980s. It’s faster, the sites are much prettier, but you still have back and forwards buttons, along with the ever-present refresh feature and some way to empty the cache when sites crash your browser.

Email is another type of application that doesn’t seem to have changed all that much from the basic spreadsheet look that divides messages into columns allowing you to sort the contents in simple ways, such as by name, when it was received and so forth and so on.

Sure, there are more ways to organize your messages, and surely Apple’s Smart Folders is a neat trick, but you still have to perform a fair amount of manual labor, such as initiating the proper search routine to get the folder you want to perform precisely the functions you require.

This isn’t to say developers aren’t searching for better ways to help you get your work done Take email, since it is probably the single most important application used by the largest number of people on a personal computer, or a smartphone. Just recently the Outspring, the descendant of the company who brought you QuickMail a long time ago, announced Outspring Mail, which may be the first iteration of an application that revolutionizes the way you access and organize your messages.

The promotional literature, for example, states that: “Outspring Mail ushers in an entirely new category of software to the Macintosh: adaptive intelligent software. By using advanced database analysis and Bayesian logic, the program is able to ascertain patterns in the way you reply to and file your mail and make suggestions to assist you with your communications.”

Now I should tell you that Outspring Mail, typical of a version one release, has some performance issues and feature shortcomings. It’s not quite a fully-realized product yet, but it appears to have huge potential, should these capabilities mature as promised.

What is most intriguing here is the fact that, at long last, a software company has made some effort to rethink the traditional email metaphor and attempt to observe your work pattern in order to handle your messages in a way that anticipates your needs.

Certainly this is one of the things that is lacking in the way Mac and Windows applications are developed now. As computers have become more and more powerful, applications have simply become larger, with more and more often useless features to compensate. Software bloat is everywhere, and when it takes 20 seconds to launch a simple word processing application on the speediest Mac on the planet, you just know that something has to give.

Now is this something that Apple ought to be doing? Well, in part, because it has a healthy selection of applications, and indeed it may have to build tools into the operating system to allow those features to exist.

Today? Well, with over 300 new features in Leopard, take a look at Mac System 1.0 back in 1984, and see how much, aside from the surface glitz, has really changed. You still interact with a Mac with mouse and keyboard. Even the revolutionary iPhone simply puts these functions onto a touch screen, but the basic functionality is little changed.

It may well be that there are, even now, small startup companies that are preparing to take the personal computing environment into the 21st century at long last. Maybe there are teams at Apple that are even now exploring some incredibly original capabilities that can be grafted into Leopard’s successor.

It couldn’t come soon enough.

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4 Responses to “The Search for the 21st Century Killer Applications”

  1. Dana Sutton says:

    Another new program that may be worth entering in the “21st Century Killer App” sweepstakes is Bento. Personally, I haven’t a whole lot of need for a “personal data base” (or at least if I do need it I don’t know that yet). But here’s an attempt to rethink Address Book and iCal by integrating them into a larger system in a new way which the developers at least imagine people will find usefl. And the interface is absolutely jaw-dropping, a huge amount of effort has been put into it and there has been a lot of thinking about how to make full use of Leopard’s graphics capacity (including the new Quartz Animation). No matter whether you like Bento or not, or whether you find it useful or not, if you check it out I think you’ll agree that it dramatically raises the bar for interface engineering and, I hope, points the way towards what a lot of the apps we use may look like and behave in the future.

  2. Art says:

    Well to me it seems obvious that so far this century the Killer App is iTunes!
    In just the last 6 years it has gone from just a thought to being a real game changer for the entire music industry just as Photo Shop and Post script was to the print industry. Maybe even more!

    Thats my thoughts anyway

  3. Well to me it seems obvious that so far this century the Killer App is iTunes!
    In just the last 6 years it has gone from just a thought to being a real game changer for the entire music industry just as Photo Shop and Post script was to the print industry. Maybe even more!

    Thats my thoughts anyway

    I’m not thinking in terms of popularity so much as whether the design and features revolutionize the industry. iTunes has certainly been a commercial success, but it builds upon existing media player apps, such as SoundJam, its predecessor.


  4. Dave says:

    I too think Bento is very promising. The idea of “gluing” various apps together is intriguing. The linking Apple’s (and other apps) would be a natural evolution. Release 1.0 leaves a lot to be desired but in a few more releases Bento may well evolve into a killer app.

    Your dismissal of Gene’s comments on iTunes misses his point. Yes, iTunes is a killer app. It is far more than the simple music player from which it began. iTunes’ integration of online content delivery created the [NEW] Podcasting industry, killed traditional brick and mortar music stores (and now threatens even WalMart’s music revenues), is doing the same for video and will very soon take on the duty of delivering software—thus generating even more revenue for Apple. Can’t you see that the social-economic impact of this ingenious product as far more than a simple music player? Apple’s implementation of millions of micro transactions ($0.99 sales paid by credit cards!) alone was a game changer.

    For my 2 cents, I’d bet on iChat becoming the next killer app. We’ve been using videoconferencing between multiple sites for over three years now. This is revolutionizing communications. We link remote experts that rely on group consults frequently. Integration of remote sites real time (including sharing of desktops and near real time data) through Leopard’s “built in” iChat is ground breaking. There is plenty of room for improvement, but iChat has evolved tremendously since its basic face to face video link. iChat is the basis for collaborative work flow which has long been promised by the web.

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