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Could a Killer App Literally Become a Killer App?

January 12, 2012


By Mark Devlin

Killer App. The first time I heard that term was from esteemed tech journalist John C. Dvorak, probably back in the eighties. The idea, if I’ve correctly understood him, was that a given platform (and related OS) would (or could) only make it big if there was a killer app for it: a must-have chunk of software. You know, like Lotus 1-2-3 or WordPerfect back in the dark days of DOS. In order for an app to be ‘killer,’ at least according to one definition, it must be both revolutionary and popular—or, ‘the reason to use a computer in the first place.’ There’s a strange combination of both dead-end and circular logic here, as revolutionary doesn’t guarantee popularity, and popularity doesn’t mean revolutionary. A favorite made-up word from a favorite author, R.A. Wilson, applies here: somebunall, or “some but not all.” Somebunall popular apps are revolutionary. Somebunall revolutionary apps are popular.

Take MS Word, for instance. I wouldn’t call it revolutionary these days, but it’s far beyond ‘popular.’ Same with Excel, or any Office apps for that matter.

A couple newer examples? How about Apple’s Siri? To me, it’s not revolutionary, but let’s assume for a moment that it is. Revolutionary hasn’t made it pervasive, nor has Siri tech become the singular reason to use an iPhone. Thus, it’s not killer. Angry Birds? Definitely not revolutionary, but it’s repeatedly bounced off the rubber ceiling of the popularity scale. Addictive, but not killer.

Let’s consider cell phones since they’re driving the mobile and connected computing revolution. It’s a stretch to even refer to most of them as phones anymore, as texting, browsing, social networking, and emailing have dwarfed the darned thing’s telephone function. I know a couple of people who’ve recently demanded, “Just give me a good PHONE, I don’t care what else it does!” Seriously. I could give you names to prove they exist, but maybe you also know such folks. There’s no clear demographic on this one. Some in their sixties just want a phone to make calls; some are in their thirties.

I’m on the fence when it comes to smartphones. Yes, I want to do more than make calls. Matter of fact, I probably use my cell more for non-voice functions. Nonetheless, call quality hardly ever seems to appear on a list of cell phone features these days. “You mean you can talk into it and the person on the other end will hear you? C’mon! You’re pullin’ my charging cord?!”

Curiously, phones are not only connected but, through hotspot functionality, enable connections to even more stuff. More and more appliances will be connected. TVs are connected, either natively or externally, to more and more streaming and Things Internet. Personally, I think we’re already over-connected. Life is complex and difficult enough without having to worry about getting an emergency text from your washing machine.

So, most everything is connected. What’s standalone now will soon be connected, from bikes and blenders to xylophones and zippers. Plus, there’ll be an app for that. Apps for your phone. Apps for your TV. Apps for your tablet. Apps for shoes and socks. Music apps. Weather apps. Flashlight apps. Gaming apps. Maybe apps to dress ourselves tastefully. Apps for everything. Soon, ‘everything’ will include even your car.

Here’s an interesting headline from a very recent GM press release:

Calling All Developers: OnStar Looking for Next Big App

OnStar? Really? Add-on apps for our cars?

Hey, at least they didn’t say ‘…Looking for Killer App.”

Here’s the opening paragraph, plus a bit more:

OnStar will give selected developers access to a proprietary application program interface (API) to create innovative mobile applications designed to interact with OnStar’s suite of services.

OnStar services are enabled by its Advanced Telematics Operating Management System. ATOMS is the most-powerful automotive cloud platform in the market today – connecting to more than 6 million OnStar customers. Apps created using the API will deliver services and functionality in the same manner. Giving safe access to the ATOMS Cloud Platform is part of a broad 2012 growth initiative OnStar announced Sunday at the Consumer Electronics Show.

Some are calling this a scary initiative. Others say it could be a blessing to, for instance, have apps to busy the kids in the backseat. True, but bigger picture-wise, I’m voting for scary.

Don’t we have enough complications (and dangers) with drivers talking, texting, emailing, and web browsing while driving? Yeah, I used to think I could multitask while driving, too. Until I thwacked a pricey and pretty alloy wheel into a curb that, I swear, just jumped out of nowhere. Since then? Sometimes, a Bluetooth headset is relatively safe and convenient. Other than that? I’m on the wagon when it comes to doing things while behind the wheel other than driving. If eyes can be kept on the road, sure. A burger or maybe a sideways Pepsi swig.

GM’s touting an app from Relay Rides, ‘a car sharing service that will let you use a mobile app to unlock OnStar-equipped cars,’ according to this piece at Gizmodo. That’s cool. Fleet management apps? Also cool. Performance, tuning, or fuel economy apps? Sign me up, as long as I don’t have to constantly poke at a touch-screen while driving.

There’s some interesting potential here, granted. But even a quick trip to the convenience store down the street will reveal some idiot doing something insane with a connected gadget while behind the wheel.

Unless we’re all okay with ten-fold increases in car insurance premiums a few years down the road, I’m begging you, GM—and other automakers—to keep apps out of our vehicles unless they do something useful and valuable—transparently and without driver interaction. In-car video chats? Hell, why not just give us bad shocks, bald tires, and lots and lots of horsepower?

If we want to do stupid, dangerous things, that’s fine. Don’t regulate us into oblivion.

Choice, however, implies both good and bad, smart and stupid. So, here’s an idea for a vehicle app: a proximity-based hardware and software system that automatically disables any potentially distracting gadget. I even have a name for it: Just Drive the Damned Car. Even if we’re too proud, arrogant, or self-important to get it for ourselves, we’ll certainly gift it to others.

Please, GM: don’t turn cars into metaphorical cell phones. Driving—for business, pleasure, and/or just getting from Point A to Point B—is the reason we have cars. Don’t make driving a secondary, It’ll-do-that-too?! function. Please don’t encourage a killer app that could, in fact, become a killer app.



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  • Larry on Jan 12 2012 9:44:01:000AM

    GM won't turn our cars into driving cell phones, Google will. Since the car will be doing the driving, the passengers will be free for all the other stuff. This is already legal in Nevada where a "operator" in an autonomous vehicle gets an exception for the no driving while texting law. http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2010/10/what-were-driving-at.html http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autonomous_car

  • Ray T on Jan 12 2012 9:35:50:000AM

    Funny how we have had for decades a law simply stated as "Inattentive driving" which initially meant you didn't have 2 hands on the steering wheel. Now we have devices that require you to use your hands for other functions and we have to have additional laws to cover these. Where does it end? I agree Mark. Hang up and drive!