In search of a 'killer' app for the IoT era

Profile picture for user mbanks By Martin Banks January 21, 2016
A simple question - has the `killer app' been replaced by the 'killer service’? If so, is that more evidence that says the winners will be those vendors that are good at stuff other than technology.

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Is it out there somewhere?

A question popped into my mind while listening to both IT vendor and user representatives talk round the subject of innovation at the recent Leaders Meet Innovation conference in London.

That question was: has there been a real ‘killer app' developed since the appearance of the spreadsheet and the desktop publisher (DTP) suites all those years ago?

The immediate response for me was ‘no’ and there are two main reasons why this seems to be the case. One is that, to be successful, just like the spreadsheets and DTP systems of yore, applications really have to chime strongly with the needs and aspirations of large user bases. That remains true to this day.

The other is that the connection between ‘killer’ and ‘app’ has become weaker, perhaps as the apps themselves start to get smaller.

The key here is that there has been a killer, but it is not an app – it is a class of apps. The smartphone has unleashed a whole new way of creating applications that is starting to consign the old Software Development Kits (SDKs) to the scrap-heap.

What is more, that approach to apps development is starting to penetrate into the way enterprise applications are developed, as they get smaller and are targeted at shorter life-cycles.

This is now being followed by what is likely to be the next 'killer' class of app – the API. These are the tools that can link together applications so that they can collaborate to form bigger, more functionally rich services. They link the data produced by one app with the code of another, so that the output of one can be the input of another. All that is needed is an appropriate API to sit between them.

These are already overcoming one of the key shortcomings of early cloud systems, where the new, sexy, web-based apps could not communicate directly with the all-important, established, back office applications on which the core of the business is based. Now, wizzo customer-facing services can use APIs to feed directly into and out of those back office systems.

And this is where the next big killer apps will come from – though they won’t be apps per se. They will be full-blown services for business management, Industrial Internet systems, Smart Cities and very personalized B2C services.

New rock n' roll

Chintan Patel, head of Solutions at Cisco, gave conference delegates a peek at the types of services that the comms and cloud giant sees coming over the hill, starting off with a succinct summation of how important, and how potentially ‘killer’, some of these services might end up being:

Technology is the new rock’n’roll, and it is now playing a fundamental role in everyone's lives. And with 39% of the world already connected, and 50 billion ‘things’ predicted to be connected by 2020, this is only get bigger. For example, the John Lewis Partnership now has a special section for smart home products on its website.

That last thought presents an obvious ‘killer’ candidate, making the reality of omni-channel retailing work effectively. For example, will supermarkets be tempted to adopt a 'Kodak/Gillette'  marketing model, giving away intelligent fridges and freezers to customers that sign up for a year's worth of food supplies?

Patel also pointed to another obvious target - automobiles of all types. This has already become a hot market, with major vendors now using the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show to launch products rather than dedicated car shows.

This is an area that also shows the dangers of running before you can walk when it comes to apps, with some of the cars apps showing signs they could possibly be the wrong type of 'killer’. Anecdotal stories are starting to emerge, especially with rental cars where the driver is unfamiliar with all the new-fangled controls, of users being effectively held hostage by their cars. This results in siutations, for example, when self-steering, white-line-following technologies fight the driver when the latter is trying to obey temporary changes in road layouts caused by road works.

One possible major ‘killer’ service Patel pointed to is the ability to print-it-yourself. The capabilities of 3D printing is bounding ahead, both in terms of hardware and design software delivery services:

It will already possible to build your own devices. You can download a growing range of designs and print them at home or wherever. And as an example of what is becoming possible, Phoenix, Arizona-based Local Motors has become the first to make a commercially available, 3D-printed car. It goes on sale this year in the USA.

He was not suggesting that individuals could do this themselves yet - the printers required are huge, and few in number. But it could generate an interesting add-on and maintenance market opportunity, where users can download and print additional parts to improve or personalize their car, or new components to replace broken parts.

Wearables and augmented reality, probably in combination, are another obvious candidate for ‘killer’ services, especially their application in creating increasingly realistic meetings environments. Face-to-face is still considered essential for important meetings with customers and partners, but the quality of the experience demonstrated suggested that the technology is ready for prime time even at that level.

An admittedly quick Google search suggests that research shows such tools having only a limited effect on staff travel to such meetings, despite the `tele-conferencing’ model really quite old now. It will be interesting to see whether the rate of video conference-based meetings will now go up or down, with the danger being that it goes up to show staff are goody-goodies, or down because the dinners and booze at networking away-days are no longer part of the deal.

There were still signs in his presentation that the old, tech-oriented perspective still plays a part in tech industry thinking, as Patel demonstrated.

I believe that those companies connected to the most data are the ones that will win.

That is OK as far as it goes, but it does miss the point that, without context and a sense of perspective, data is largely just mindless dross. As an afterthought, however, he did add:

And yes, do something meaningful with it.

The importance of this came through in a panel session, where social futurist Mal Fletcher pointed to the failure of Google Glass wearables, suggesting they failed because they had no human connection, despite the fact they had to wear them. Basically, no-one could see an obvious reason to own them.

That need for not just an understandable justification, but also a user identification with a product or service as a part of their lives, is the key element now in creating ‘killer’ apps or services. Fletcher suggested that even systems providing remote, cloud-based control of someone’s home, such as Hive, had not really taken off.

This seems to demonstrate that getting the message of what is actually being sold correct is now the most important factor: the technology is irrelevant, as Fletcher pointed out.

There is still too much talking about technology and what it can do for its own sake.

After all, the basics of home management technology were being demonstrated over 30 years ago at the 1982 Ideal Home Exhibition in London, and existed before then.

My take

Not only will the next ‘killer apps’ be 'killer services'  but the way the 'killer' capabilities are put over to users – and increasingly dedicated non-techie users to boot – will be what defines the next set of major winners.