Killer applications sell the hardware and the OS that runs them. The classic example is Lotus 1-2-3, for which users bought the original IBM PC. The killer apps for dumb cell phones are voice and text messaging. They’ve been fantastically successful, with a mobile phone in the pocket of more than half the world’s population.
The killer app for smartphones is more elusive. Worldwide smartphone sales in 2009 were 172 million units, about 14 percent of total phone sales of 1.2 billion units.
Microsoft has just released Windows Phone 7. Many reviewers dismiss it as too little, too late. But I think Microsoft’s stolid, un-hip image (very different from 20 years ago) will play well to the much larger audience now considering the move to smartphones, provided that app developers recognize the composition of that audience and adjust their offerings to it.
Anyone who owns a smartphone today is, by definition, an early adopter. They bought an iPhone or Android because they enjoy the technology for its own sake, and for displaying status within their geek peer group. They consider the iPhone app store amazingly cool because it contains more than 100 apps that make fart noises, which they enjoy comparing and contrasting in bars with their friends.
The first app programmers resembled, and often were, their early adopter customers. They had only to build apps that they themselves liked in order to be successful. I’d bet that somewhere in the app is an Easter egg crediting the original expeller of the fart sounds and the brave anosmic souls that recorded them. But that’s not the killer app that will catapult smartphones from early adopters into the mainstream.
The next wave of smartphone adoption will come from users who value technology not for itself, but only for making their lives easier. This wave is primarily controlled by women, either on their own or as telecommunication managers for their families. They have different technology-usage patterns and goals than male users, as I wrote in my August column, “Mars and Venus” (msdn.microsoft.com/magazine/ff898402). A killer app to them is very different from a killer app for the predominantly male early adopter audience.
My wife rolls her eyes at the farting apps. (My daughters, 10 and 7, think they’re way cool, especially when networked with the companion lighter app on another iPhone. But they don’t control the purse strings.) She absolutely loathes the iRevolver Russian Roulette app, and is underwhelmed by the iBeer drinking app—after working her job and schlepping the kids around all day, she needs the real thing. Only male geeks can pacify themselves by sucking on the corner of a plastic phone.
What is the overriding factor in the life of today’s female smartphone purchaser? She’s busy. She works a demanding job, then takes care of her kids, her pets, her parents and her in-laws, herself and her husband—very much in that order. She needs apps that deliver groceries because she doesn’t have time to stop at the supermarket; apps that schedule appointments and track medical data with the pediatrician (or geriatrician or obstetrician or vet); apps that tell her where her kids are and how late her husband’s train is running; apps that play soothing music while she waits for the kids’ gymnastics practice to end, or drown out the caterwauling at their violin lessons. In a word: tools, not the geek toys that drove the early adopters.
The next wave of customers will demand completely different apps. Developers will succeed in satisfying these customers if and only if they follow Platt’s First, Last and Only Law of User Experience Design: “Know Thy User, for He Is Not Thee.” The cool app that so impressed the first wave will leave the much-larger second wave cold.
David S. Platt teaches Programming .NET at Harvard University Extension School and at companies all over the world. He’s the author of 11 programming books, including “Why Software Sucks” (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2006) and “Introducing Microsoft .NET” (Microsoft Press, 2002). Microsoft named him a Software Legend in 2002. He wonders whether he should tape down two of his daughter’s fingers so she learns how to count in octal. You can contact him at rollthunder.com.
I think this is a great article. I enjoyed reading it. And what it says it's very true. The comments opposed to the articles are kind of correct, too. But that's the magic: the article tickles our mind to see things from different angles. One thing that's for sure as the article explains: that there is great potential in the near future for the smartphones apps.
"She’s busy. She works a demanding job, then takes care of her kids, her pets, her parents and her in-laws, herself and her husband—very much in that order." Very much in that order, mwahahaha! LOL
David Platt is a genious! Or at least this article is genious. If thinking like this is what's driving Microsoft I would want to put 30% of my savings into MS stocks right now!! It's a rare thing to read an article that's absolutely brilliant and funny at the same time - Keep'em coming mister Platt! After reading this I so need to get a Windows Phone 7... Need!
I wrote a blog article with comments about this. I think there are several problems with the article. I think it's wrong to say that all smartphone users are early adopters. BlackBerry users have been at it since 2002, iPhone users since 2007, and Windows CE powered smartphones quite some time ago. You can't call smartphones a new technology because Microsoft released a new one. I also think it was dangerous to focus on women when choosing your example of the "unwashed masses" that need to adopt smartphones to allow the technology to reach its potential. It's a real problem that there aren't many women in tech, and it doesn't help when you portray women as homemakers. Sure, you mentioned they have a job, but then you spent the rest of the paragraphs discussing domestic duties that husbands share as well. Women aren't the only group not buying smartphones: there's people too poor, too frugal, or completely unaware of the benefits that "women" excludes. Finally, if you peek at the Apple app store they've already had this realization. The web site suggest applications for students, cooks, outdoorsmen, and other walks of life. What's the WP7 app store suggest for me? Nothing; it displays only featured and popular apps with no filtering or searching unless I download yet another piece of software. I think your article is a good read for Windows Phone developers, but developers on more mature smartphone platforms have figured this out long ago.
I think you're talking about Angry Birds? Your daughters may be a little old to appreciate it but if you want to see something magical, download Pop Out A Night Before Christmas for your iPad. That is the sort of experience that speaks to Mums.
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