Commentary: The death of killer apps

You know it's going to be a long, tough dry spell for technological innovation when the search for coffee beans becomes touted as the next great "killer app." Does anyone really know what will be the "killer app" in Web services?

You know it's going to be a long, tough dry spell for technological innovation when the search for coffee beans becomes touted as the next great "killer app."

Of course, we're in that stage where wireless applications are still considered at least lukewarm, if not hot. Thankfully, the fate of the dot-coms--and the statistics regarding user interest--has at least kept the idea of mobile commerce from generating the same kind of froth and frenzy among ingénues, speculators and venture capitalists as did nutty Net ventures.

But it's not quite over yet.

At this month's Gartner Symposium and IT Expo in Denver, one of the focal points was Web services. This is the rather plain but just-emerging term for the deployment across the Net of different pieces of software that are loosely tied together. This is supposed to be the advent of a whole new set of applications, since the software will pull together nuggets of information and utility from multiple companies' servers and present unique services to Web users.

So what will be the "killer app'' in Web services?

The earnest Gartner analyst had little doubt. The first thing he is worried about when he comes to a new town, like Denver, is where he's going to get his favorite cup of coffee. To him, the "killer app" for Web services was going to be a Starbucks store locator.

Wake me up in time for the next millennial revolution.

If that didn't get you caffeinated, he had another great example: A speed-trap notifier. But who's going to pay for that? Nobody's going to advertise on a service designed to help someone avoid the law. And nobody is going to exchange money for a subscription to such a service. The first outfit to pay for that address list is going to be a law enforcement agency. Besides, where's the need? Just ease off the gas a bit. You'll save money.

But it's not just one isolated Gartner analyst who can't tell a tsunami from a water droplet. There, in The Wall Street Journal, just last week, was the story of IBM--trying again to be the leading force in heavy-duty computing--helping a big-name client, the Galileo reservations network, implement Web services.

Here, the example of the kind of Web service that Galileo hoped to roll out was another chestnut: Golf tee-time reservations.

Now, golf is a great game, and certainly is the avocation enjoyed and employed by the largest swath of corporate titans that can be tracked. But somehow it's hard to imagine CEOs who don't even use their desktop computers to book a plane or hotel room suddenly saying, "Hey, I'm going to use Galileo to book a game of golf with three of my closest buddies."


Now, you say, there goes the old digital curmudgeon again. It's hard to predict what uses people really will put a new technology toward. Heck, even proponents of a really significant new technology can shoot complete blanks when trying to foresee its future. It was IBM's longtime chairman, Thomas J. Watson, who famously--or infamously--estimated that there would only be need enough on the entire planet for five computers to exist. Now, some people carry that many in their shirt, pants, briefcase and coat on the way home every night.

Take a look at NTT DoCoMo's wildly popular i-mode phones in Japan. Are people using them to talk? Hardly. They use them as typewriters, to send messages to each other. And as photocopiers, to send images. And entertainment devices, to pull down music clips, ring tones and goodnight messages from friends and paramours.

So maybe there is something in the idea that the "killer app" in these Web services is not a killer app at all. It may be a whole host of bric-a-brac that provide a usefulness that makes portable devices desirable for much more than just storing contact information and shrunken versions of spreadsheets and news clippings.

But that sounds like an idea that flowers from the garden of wishful thinking. Let me download and play back a sound bite from Clara Peller, the elderly Wendy's spokescharacter of the mid-'80s: "Where's the beef?"