What Is a Killer Application?

A killer application—or a killer app—is a software program with a user-interface perceived as innovative enough to influence computing trends and sales. The term dates to the early development of personal computers and software in the 1980s, when accounting, database, and word-processing applications were first being developed for mass use.

The term "killer application" may be derived from the fact that such an application was perceived to be innovative enough to overcome the competition and spur sales of both applications and computers running operating systems advanced enough to accommodate the latest innovations.

Key Takeaways

  • A killer application is a feature or piece of software so good that it drives sales and growth of the overall platform or company, similar to flagship products and brands in traditional industries.
  • Killer applications can be a major source of competitive advantage, brand loyalty, and profitability for a company. 
  • In the modern economy, killer applications are sought by all kinds of businesses across many industries beyond technology and computing. 

Understanding Killer Applications

Killer applications can be instrumental in driving rapid growth in sales of the platform on which they are based. They are usually a product or service that is a primary source of competitive advantage for a company. A prime example is iTunes, which helped Apple Computer overcome inertia as a niche computer manufacturer to expand into the broader entertainment markets. While some companies that develop killer applications can enjoy substantial margins and profits for many years, this competitive advantage does not always last for long, and short product life cycles are the norm rather than the exception.

As businesses increasingly adopted stand-alone computers connected by local networks or mainframes, both computer and software manufacturers developed more evolved applications that allowed users to execute tasks without needing to know programming language or commands to save a file or send electronic communications. Over time, applications such as Microsoft Word and Excel became the standard for businesses, overshadowing earlier competition such as Word Perfect or Lotus 123. A similar dynamic played out as internet browsers and email applications competed for users worldwide.

Typically, a killer application constitutes such a desirable feature that it drives sales and adoption of the platform on which it runs, such as operating systems or specific devices. The value that the killer application brings to the user may even help other perceived shortcomings of the platform and can raise the switching cost for consumers to leave the platform, increasing longevity and brand loyalty. For example, the popular Halo first-person-shooter game series is widely credited as the killer application that built the success of Microsoft’s Xbox game consoles. It was so popular that it spawned the derivative term “Halo killer”, which is meant to be a first-person-shooter good enough to rival or unseat Halo. 

In the modern economy, development and reliance upon killer applications extends beyond just technology and computing businesses or bridge the gap between pure tech businesses and more traditional goods and services. These are intended to drive sales and growth of the overall business “platform” in the same way as killer apps historically have. The ubiquity of smartphones and "always-on-always-connected" culture means that products and industries from healthcare delivery to restaurant food service to fitness centers are all seeking their own killer app to drive online and in-person traffic to their doorstep. These can include everything from online sales and customer appointment scheduling to online social platforms for customers and downloadable apps that interface directly with a physical product. Using or offering software that complements the goods and services that a company provides is now key to driving a superior customer experience and competitive advantage.