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The next killer app

December 9, 1997
by Zac Belado

The computer industry is eternally in search of the next killer app. Marketing material will use the name to shill its products. Commentators will explain slumping software sale on its lack of presence. It is panacea and grail in one small box.

A "killer app" is defined as any application that is, on its own strengths, enough incentive for people to buy a computer. VisiCalc was the first. This spreadsheet app was what brought the original Apple II into businesses. It launched the fortunes of Apple and brought enough attention to the, at the time, micro-computer industry that IBM stepped into the business. For me Quake 2 is a killer app. And, it can be said, that MS Word (and Office) is the anti-killer app, in that its absence on a platform is enough to make people not buy it. The software industry is, despite talk to the contrary, very much hit driven. But the hits are not necessarily based on numbers sold and boxes shipped but on paradigms altered and new markets created.

You still see the phrase bandied around but it seems to me that the pundits have missed the lesson of last three years of the computer industry. The next killer app won't come in a box, will be cross-platform, browser independent and not have a single line of code.

Can I have the envelope please?
The last killer app was the net. Mosaic never sold as many copies as Word but it altered the landscape of the computer industry dramatically. In the same way, the next killer app will be broadband internet services to the home. Be it cable modems, ADSL or ISDN, if you're lucky enough to be able to get this access to your home or office it will entirely change the way you view the net and how you use it. It may even sell a few machines.

If you read my last rant you'll know that I think the net as it currently stands is, in itself, the main reason it has failed as a delivery medium. 1K/sec (a low but average modem throughput) is pathetic throughput. Compare this to the rather inadequate 120K/sec that a single speed CD will produce. And just how usable is a 1X CD-ROM? Frankly the fact that the net has succeeded at all is a testament to the skill of the programmers and designers that have created the content that we view, more than any inherent superiority of the metaphor.

Setting the net on fire...one match at a time. As Director developers we face two primary problems: the size of our downloadable content and the fact that the 1MB+ size of the Shockwave installer frightens many users away from what is clearly a superior delivery engine. Imagine a world where 1MB is a negligible amount.

Imagine a world where we don't even notice the fact that we've streamed a gigabyte of audio. It's a bit of an irony that we have effectively abandoned the 1.4 MB floppy disk as a distribution method for Director projects (mostly due to Director's inability to make a simple projector that will fit on a floppy) and yet we frequently find ourselves working in a medium, via the internet, where 100K is considered an upper limit to file sizes.

Even our development tools ingrain this bandwidth hoarding; Dreamweaver constantly displays the size in bytes and the estimated download time of its HTML files. We strain and work to eke out a few extra bytes from our content instead of just trying to provide the best content and experience we can for our users. We shortchange the people who use our products and cripple our own visions. Currently it's a pretty simple exercise to create the HTML code that contains your Shockwave applets so that the plug ins load automatically. But your visitor still has to wait for that data to transfer from one server to another. Even if you make the process of loading and installing the software transparent to the user, it is still hobbled by the download speeds.

People aren't stupid. For the most part I think they know what Shockwave can do and they want it. But they don't want to wait for it. And they don't want to have to download it three times because their modem drops its PPP connection.

Dream a little dream
Let's do a quick experiment. Think about the last project you delivered on the web. If you don't do web development, think about the last site you visited.

Imagine the same project or site but remove all the bandwidth constraints.

Now, go a step further and add any software component, any Xtra and any plug in you want.

I remember two years ago when two of my employer's projects were nominated for People's Choice awards. Part of the information and media that Macromedia wanted to use on its website were two 500K Quicktime files. I spent a week on those two movies. Compressing, testing, resizing, reworking. All in order to get two insignificant files that were consistent with the product's vision.

I thought it was stupid then and I'm even more convinced, two years later, that we are reaching a plateau. We'll still produce great work, we'll still deserve the awards that our peers present us, but the projects and the content will be a shadow of what we know we can create. Enough of us have gotten a honey-taste of the broadband services to know that we live a lie. We can do better but we have to get better delivery mechanisms.

Beware the Dark Sideā„¢ Luke
But there are down sides.

Nature abhors a vacuum and content loves it so much it rushes to fill it. Put up a big enough pipe and someone (probably offering cut-rate pornography) will come up with a way of filling it.

I am no Candide and assume that as soon as broadband services are available in your area, someone in your neighbourhood will have a site that streams entirely superfluous 16 bit audio as a background to pictures of their cats. 32 bit, fullscreen video of little fluffy's first litter will no doubt soon follow as the happy owners share their newfound joy with all their friends and relatives that live in a metropolitan area large enough to have ADSL.

And is that a danger? The development of a metropolitan population with broadband service as opposed to a rural community with 28.8K modem access. Will we be judging our schools by marks or by bandwidth? Will the lack of broadband services across a wide population base help to further concentrate the developers and content producers into areas like SF and New York? Changes are coming. The way we look at media and content delivery is going to undergo a dramatic shift. The only questions remaining are how far that change will go and who will have access to it. And before you answer the question remember this: every potential viewer is a potential client.

Zac Belado is a programmer, web developer and rehabilitated ex-designer based in Vancouver, British Columbia. He currently works as an Application Developer for a Vancouver software company. His primary focus is web applications built using ColdFusion. He has been involved in multimedia and web-based development, producing work for clients such as Levi Straus, Motorola and Adobe Systems. As well, he has written for the Macromedia Users Journal and been a featured speaker at the Macromedia Users Convention.

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