In marketing terminology, a killer application (commonly shortened to killer app) is any computer program that is so necessary or desirable that it proves the core value of some larger technology, such as computer hardware, a gaming console, software, a programming language, a software platform, or an operating system. In other words, consumers would buy the (usually expensive) hardware just to run that application. A killer app can substantially increase sales of the platform on which it runs.
One of the first recognized examples of a killer application is generally agreed to be the VisiCalc spreadsheet for the Apple II series. Because it was not available on other computers for 12 months, people spent $100 for the software first, then $2,000 to $10,000 on the Apple computer they needed to run it. BYTE wrote in 1980, "VisiCalc is the first program available on a microcomputer that has been responsible for sales of entire systems", while Creative Computing's VisiCalc review was subtitled "reason enough for owning a computer". Others also chose to develop software, such as EasyWriter, for the Apple II first because of its higher sales, helping Apple defeat rivals Commodore International and Tandy Corporation.
Lotus 1-2-3 similarly benefited sales of the IBM PC and compatibles, just as VisiCalc did for Apple sales. Noting that computer purchasers did not want PC compatibility as much as compatibility with certain PC software, InfoWorld suggested "let's tell it like it is. Let's not say 'PC compatible,' or even 'MS-DOS compatible.' Instead, let's say '1-2-3 compatible.'" Another killer app is WordStar, the most popular word processor during much of the 1980s.
The UNIX Operating System served as a killer application for the DEC PDP-11 minicomputer and VAX-11 minicomputer during roughly 1975–1985. Many of the PDP-11 and VAX-11 processors never ran DEC's operating systems (RSTS or VAX/VMS), but instead, they ran UNIX, which was first licensed in 1975. To get a virtual-memory UNIX (BSD 3.0) you had to purchase a VAX-11 computer. Many universities wanted a general-purpose timesharing system that would meet the needs of students and researchers (early versions of UNIX included free compilers for C, Fortran, and Pascal; at the time, offering even one free compiler was unprecedented). From its inception UNIX could drive high-quality typesetting equipment and later PostScript printers using the nroff/troff typesetting language, and this was also unprecedented for its time. UNIX was the first operating system offered in source-license form (a university license cost only $10,000, less than a PDP-11), allowing it to run on an unlimited number of machines, and allowing the machines to interface to any type of hardware because the UNIX I/O system was extensible.
The first recorded use of the term in print was 1988, in PC Week 24 May. 39/1. "Everybody has only one killer application. The secretary has a word processor. The manager has a spreadsheet."
The definition of "killer app" came up during Bill Gates's questioning in the United States v. Microsoft Corp. antitrust case. Bill Gates had written an email in which he described Internet Explorer as a killer app. In the questioning, he said that the term meant "a popular application", and did not connote an application that would fuel sales of a larger product or one that would supplant its competition, as the Microsoft Computer Dictionary defined it.
- AmigaOS: Deluxe Paint, Video Toaster
- Mac OS: Microsoft PowerPoint (before 1990)
- RISC OS: Sibelius (before 1998)
- The Internet: For accessing the World Wide Web, Netscape was the killer app until being forced out by Internet Explorer
The term has also been applied to computer and video games that cause consumers to buy a particular video game console or gaming hardware over a competing one, by virtue of being exclusive to that platform. Such a game is also known in gaming parlance as a "system seller". Examples of a video game killer applications are:
- The first generally agreed example of a "killer app" in gaming is the 1980 Atari VCS port of the arcade game Space Invaders, which quadrupled sales of the then three-year-old console .
- Star Raiders, released in 1979, was considered to be the killer app for the Atari 400/800 computers. Another was Eastern Front (1941).
- The port of Donkey Kong was the killer app for the ColecoVision console in 1982.
- The Famicom home port of Xevious is considered the console's first killer app, and caused system sales to jump by nearly 2 million units.
- The video gaming website GameTrailers considers the Super Mario Bros. games to be the killer app for nearly all Nintendo home consoles, Tetris as the killer app for the Game Boy, Grand Theft Auto III for the PlayStation 2, Super Smash Bros. Melee for the Nintendo GameCube, and Wii Sports for the Wii.
- Computer Gaming World stated that The Legend of Zelda on the Nintendo Entertainment System, Phantasy Star II on the Sega Genesis, and Far East of Eden for the NEC TurboGrafx-16 were killer apps for their consoles.
- John Madden Football's popularity in 1990 helped the Genesis gain market share against the Super Nintendo.
- Sonic the Hedgehog, released in 1991, was hailed as a killer app as it revived sales of the (by then) three-year-old Genesis.
- Street Fighter II, originally released for arcades in 1991, became a system-seller for the Super Nintendo when it was ported to the platform in 1992.
- Myst and The 7th Guest, both released in 1993, drove adoption of CD-ROM drives for personal computers.
- Pokémon Red and Blue could be classified a "killer app" for the seven-year-old Game Boy as a craze evolved around the series in the late 1990s, and it was only available on that platform.
- Pokémon Gold and Silver were released at the height of the Pokémon craze alongside the Game Boy Color, and fueled the sales for the console all the way to the release of the Game Boy Advance two years later.
- Super Mario 64, GoldenEye 007 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time could be considered killer apps for the Nintendo 64, with Super Mario 64 being one of two launch titles for the console and the main factor behind the platform's initial success.
- The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings was regarded as a killer app for Xbox 360 but its sequel The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was available for PlayStation 4 and not only Xbox One.
- Highly popular games such as Bayonetta 2, Batman: Arkham City and Call of Duty: Black Ops II were arguably killer apps for Wii U due to the relative shortage of video games belonging to the same genre as the aforementioned ones for Wii consoles.
- PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale included characters from many killer apps for PlayStation 3 such as Killzone 3, God of War III, Infamous 2 and Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One, all published in 2011 with each of these games being part of a large franchise.
- Tekken 5 and Soulcalibur III, both developed by Namco, were exclusively available for the PlayStation 2 console with Tekken 5: Dark Resurrection, the improved version of Tekken 5, being only available for PSP which was the handheld version of PlayStation from Sony, while the fifth, sixth and seventh games of the Mortal Kombat series as well as Marvel vs. Capcom 2: New Age of Heroes were also available for Xbox, thus establishing Tekken 5 and Soulcalibur III as killer apps for Sony in the fighting game genre.
- Final Fantasy VII was regarded as arguably the greatest video game of one of the best video game franchises and with the previous installment of the series Final Fantasy VI being also considered to be one of the best video games of all time in its own right, while Final Fantasy VII was the first game of a series with a Science fiction setting rather than Fantasy as all previous games as well as the first to introduce 3D gameplay, became a killer app for PlayStation as all previous installments were published for Nintendo consoles.
- Super Mario Galaxy and its sequel were acclaimed as two of the greatest video games of all time and killer apps for Wii.
- Gears of War and Uncharted, specifically the second and third installments of both series, were prominent killer apps for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 as well as their sequels Gears of War 4 and Uncharted 4: A Thief's End for Xbox One and PlayStation 4, respectively.
- Halo is considered to be the killer app for the Xbox console, and the series also went on to become the killer app for the Xbox One.
- Bloodborne was known as the first killer app for the PlayStation 4 console.
- The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was considered a killer app as a launch title for the Nintendo Switch. Through the first month of availability, the game outsold the console itself, resulting in an attach rate of over 100 percent.
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- Scannell, Ed (February 20, 1989). "OS/2: Waiting for the Killer Applications". InfoWorld. Vol. 11 no. 8. Menlo Park, CA: InfoWorld Publications. pp. 41–45. ISSN 0199-6649. Early use of the term "Killer Application".
- Kask, Alex (September 18, 1989). "Revolutionary Products Are Not in the Industry's Near Future". InfoWorld. Vol. 11 no. 38. Menlo Park, CA: InfoWorld Publications. p. 68. ISSN 0199-6649. Early use of the term "Killer App".
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- Earliest usage cited in Oxford English Dictionary
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