The Shape of Killer Apps to Come

Have you noticed lately a difference in how people talk about technology? The sheen is gone from the hype that surrounds everything new and high tech. Other than Napster and the MP3 debate, all news seems to be down. Even the Napster debate is all about shutting down the service and how music junkies are trying to subvert the process.

Everything is bad, bad news. Must be the midwinter doldrums. I get emails on a fairly regular basis about services I have subscribed to being shut down, acquired, or “transferred.” This is a new kind of email, very different from the happy streams of text and HTML I usually get.

Here are some examples of things that make the Curmudgeon really think twice about all the hype that’s been put out there. Maybe we can learn something from these stories?

  1. Spam with a twist. On a fairly regular basis for the past six months, emails like this have come out (I’ve edited it for brevity’s sake):

      Dear user,

      [Product 1] has discontinued all [Product 1] services. Effective immediately, [Product 1] is no longer accepting new user registrations.

      To make sure you continue to have global access to your data, [Product 1] recommends that you sign up for a [Product 2] account. Use [Product 2’s] feature to accomplish what you could ordinarily do with [Product 1].

      [[Product 2] marketing blurb]

      We have appreciated your business and support. Please note that this is the final notification regarding the deactivation of our service. [Product 1] will not contact you via email again.

    I am not sure whether I ever signed up for Product 1 in any case, so basically I am being spammed now NOT to take action rather than to take it. The other interesting thing is that I have never received this type of notice from traditional software products ceasing support, but I have received several from Web sites. Is there something that makes ceasing support of a Web site somehow more important than ceasing support of, say, my favorite FTP software?

  2. Too much is too much. Intel’s latest Pentium. 4 is not getting the traction that the Pentium Pro, II, and III got. The speeds and feeds are as usual much better but the email newsletters I read from the pundits point to one thing: “Does the average Joe really need to blow over $2000 on a computer that beats a Cray supercomputer in raw computing power, but still crashes on a regular basis?”

  3. The Browser War, cont. The browser war has been fought, but is ditente on the horizon? Is it really necessary to add more and more HTML/DHTML/You-name-it-ML to the Web browser? Netscape 6 is taking a beating on not supporting many Web sites, and designers and programmers are actually shunning support for the latest and greatest product from Netscape.

    When have you seen that happen lately? When early adopters stop being early adopters, I really have to take a pause. The honest truth is that supporting a Web site (or an HTML email) that looks and feels reasonable in Explorer 4, 5, 5.5; Netscape 4.0, 4.7, 6; AND Outlook. 97, 2000, Netscape Messenger, Eudora, and so on is just too much for the average group. Layer over Mac and UNIX support for those browsers and email clients, and you have over 30 different “platforms” to test on. Ouch.

  4. Security problems galore. Systems are so complex and untested that security problems go unnoticed for years. Thankfully, most issues are fixed quickly, and those that are not fixed are not taken advantage of. The latest email wiretap loophole described by the Privacy Foundation has not been exploited to date (we hope!), but it is a clear example of how the extreme flexibility of the Internet and the underlying technologies as well as shorter and shorter development and testing cycles can cause major problems to be left unnoticed. It’s pretty scary out there, folks. Surf with a safety helmet.

A longer-view approach is definitely necessary, but the outlook can be quite stormy for the next few months or even years. The accepted understanding should now be that whatever you are building (product, service, or even email campaign) must help someone adopt technology without too much effort on everyone’s part. At some point the effort will outweigh the results (witness the bad business ideas out there). Whether it is from a price, performance/stability, or sheer usability perspective, the focus has to be on improving the experience, not continuous “paradigm shifts.”

The next killer app is just around the corner. I can just feel it. It will get those media headlines looking up again.

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