Thoughts on Killer Apps, Kindle for iPad, and the iPad

Spent the better part of three hours browsing through every single section of the iPad App Store and trying out Apps and realized what people mean when they say the success of the iPad will depend on the creation of Killer Apps.

Update: Jon Gruber has his iPad review out and he says the Killer App for the iPad is the App Store. Well, that’s a rather unsatisfying answer.

There aren’t yet that many Killer Apps for the iPad

Went through the top 100 paid and free iPad apps in each category and for some categories (productivity, books) went through all apps. There just aren’t enough killer apps at the moment.

Take games – perhaps the future of games is casual games and anti-social games like Farmville. However, there’s nothing like Bioshock or Fallout 3 or Halo for the iPad. There’s not even a Zelda or Mario Brothers equivalent (i.e. no 2D masterpiece).

There is no iPad game that would make me buy the iPad just to be able to play that game.

How do we define a Killer App?

Wikipedia defines it thus -

A killer application (commonly shortened to killer app), in the jargon of computer programmers and video gamers, has been used to refer to any computer program that is so necessary or desirable that it proves the core value of some larger technology, such as computer hardware like a gaming console, operating system or other software.

A killer app can substantially increase sales of the platform on which it runs.

We’ll just take it to be an App that possesses most of the following qualities -

  1. It’s so useful or desirable that it justifies the purchase of the platform.
  2. It’s so useful or desirable that it makes the device indispensable.
  3. It’s ideally suited to the platform. 
  4. It’s not available on another equally good device or platform. 

With these dual definitions in hand let’s look at the iPad.

What Apps might become the iPad’s Killer Apps?

Here are some apps you could argue have the potential to be killer apps -

  1. Kindle for iPad. Arguably the best reading app.
  2. Netflix for movie rentals.  
  3. Apple’s Videos App that plays Movies.
  4. ABC Videos for TV Shows.
  5. YouTube.
  6. Photo Apps and Slideshow Apps like Beautiful Planet. This might sound strange – However, viewing photos, navigating maps, and watching video are currently the frontrunners for Killer functionality on the iPad.
  7. Maps.
  8. Marvel Comics App and other comic reader apps. Comics are very well suited to the iPad.
  9. PDF Reader Apps like GoodReader and iPDF. Haven’t tested these enough yet.
  10. Journal and Diary Apps like iJournal and Notably.
  11. News Apps like WSJ, BBC News, and Reuters.
  12. File Sharing Apps like Box.net.
  13. Phone Apps like Skype and Second Line.

The only things that scream out as me as ‘killer apps – nothing’s better than the iPad for this’ are viewing photos and navigating maps. The things that come close are reading comics and watching videos. Surfing and News are pretty good too.

For casual readers Kindle for iPad might be a killer app – it’s pretty well done. The LCD doesn’t work for me (was reading MetaGame on iPad and 15 minutes in could tell it’s hurting my eyes). More on Kindle for iPad after reading some books on it.

At the moment there isn’t anything that makes the iPad a must-have (for me). It is easy to see it as the Kitchen Tablet or Living Room Tablet once it drops to $300 or so in price.

There’s a chance you have specific interests and the apps in your areas of interest are good enough to make the iPad indispensable. However, we might not be at that stage yet – It’s still an emerging platform. 

There just aren’t enough users or enough competition to generate Killer Apps 

If we don’t have Killer Apps then we need the conditions that would create Killer Apps -

  1. Lots of very good apps.
  2. Promise of large rewards for which we need lots of users. 
  3. Brutal competition.
  4. Developers concentrating on development for the iPad. 

That’s just missing.

The problem is exacerbated by iPhone Apps. You don’t really get the 150,000 iPhone apps automatically for the iPad.

An iPhone App is not an iPad App

The first shock after using an iPhone App on the iPad is just how small it is and just how bad it looks when blown up to large size.

In plain English iPhone apps use 25% or so of the iPad’s screen in normal mode and are difficult to use.

From Pindelski’s post on iPad screen ratios we know that the iPad’s screen is 8.4 times the size of the iPhone’s screen. The iPad uses a slightly larger screen to emulate iPhone Apps (approximately 1.25 times larger). That means that the ratio of iPad screen area to emulated iPhone App area is approximately 6.7:1. These are just approximations so feel free to add any insights or information.

If you blow up the App it seems to use 85% of the iPad’s screen – However, it looks rather bad due to the pixels being scaled up.

That means iPhone apps are either difficult to use (in normal iPhone size) or not visually appealing (in doubled size).

We don’t know if enough Developers will commit to the iPad and the iPhone becomes a rival

Why will developers choose a platform with 300K sales so far and perhaps a few million sales in the first year over a platform that is in the tens of millions of units range already?

Why will developers choose to create Apps for the iPad when iPhone Apps are making good money?

There seem to be a few carrots dangled in front of them -

  1. iPad users might pay more for Apps. You see this from the prices which are almost always noticeably higher for the iPad versions of Apps – tag on HD and add $5 to the price. 
  2. Get an early foothold.
  3. Less competition.
  4. It’s an emerging platform and it’ll grow.

Well, there are also several negatives – People might not pay $7 to $10 for games, it’s pretty closed, iPad sales figures might not be enough to sustain quality app development, and the presence of free apps (to be fair this is very low - only 20% of iPad apps are free).

Perhaps the biggest problem is that the iPhone  is a much more compelling platform (and Android is threatening to become compelling). At least we know that lots of developers are seeing success in the iPhone App Store.

Apple needs to ignite the creation of Killer Apps

Steve Jobs’ Reality Distortion Field and the fawning press managed to get a ton of interest in iPad App creation. Apple also managed to get lots of content companies aboard by promising them a monetizable channel – ABC, Netflix, the newspapers, and the magazines.

Book Publishers probably jumped in due to the promise of the Agency Model.

However, now that we know that sales were 300,000 at launch (and not something amazing like a million) developers are hit with some realities -

  1. 300,000 users (or say 1 million after iPad 3G comes out) are nothing compared to the iPhone’s numbers.
  2. It might be a year or more until the iPad market size is big enough. 
  3. The reward might not be proportionate to the effort in creating iPad apps (not to mention taking on all the competition).

The other vital component, users, are also running into some doubts.

It’s not clear what the iPad’s raison d’être is

Why is it magical? What makes it revolutionary?

What is it meant for?

People just make the assumption that because 20 million netbooks were sold last year 10 million iPads will be sold this year. On what basis?

Netbooks had price, portability, and battery life in their camp. Compare them with laptops and there was a huge difference in value for money.

Perhaps the iPad does beat netbooks. However, the difference between iPad and netbooks is not as stark as the difference between netbooks and laptops. Plus we’re in tough economic times – a factor that favors netbooks over the iPad.

Even if we assume the iPad is better than netbooks it isn’t guaranteed to take off like netbooks did.

Apple need to help create apps that make the iPad ‘magical’ and ‘revolutionary’

Apple can’t just assume developers will fulfill Apple’s marketing promise of a ‘magical and revolutionary’ device.

Especially since app developers have alternative options that are much more compelling - for example, the iPhone.

Apple probably will have to start financial awards or an iPad App Funding program to help generate the killer apps the iPad needs to get to 5 to 10 million units sold. At that point there will be enough of a customer base (and a big enough potential reward) to ensure a steady stream of killer apps.

There have been no announcements of instant iPad millionaires and there may not be any for a while.

How then does the iPad compete with the iPhone’s promise of overnight millions?

The likely scenario is it doesn’t for a year or more. Perhaps never.

It’s amusing to think that the biggest roadblock in the iPad’s path to success is the extreme appeal of developing apps for the iPhone.

5 Responses

  1. The killer app for the iPad: Safari.

    I use the web far more than anything else. IMHO, in most cases the iPad offers a better web experience than my desktop, laptop or phone. It feels like holding then internet in my hand. Yeah, I miss a keyboard sometimes and occasionally run across a flash site but the touch screen just feels more natural than an mouse or other pointing device.

  2. I would’t discount the existing iPhone apps so quickly. I agree they need to be modified, but I get the impression from web postings that this isn’t a major issue to create a unified app. While I am a kindle fanboy, I think the killer features are that for the apps that are usable, the experience is better than on a pc. In most cases, the alternative means of accessing the information provided in an app on a pc is via the web. Even without the touch interface, the app experience is better than the pc web experience, IMHO.

  3. I was under the impression that this was a Kindle newsletter but rapidly thinking that it is sponsored by Apple!!

    Who cares about iPad. Very nice piece of technology and would like one sometime but not as an eReader.

    • No, it’s just that it might kill eReaders or force them to evolve drastically so it’s worth exploring.
      Know thy Enemy and all that stuff.

  4. For me, the iPad killer app is reading academic papers. Conference proceedings and journal articles are invariably PDFs, often in two-column format, and hence exacting page layout requirements. Matt Welsh, a computer science professor at Harvard, describes the use case pretty much exactly:

    http://matt-welsh.blogspot.com/2010/04/reviewing-papers-on-ipad.html

    I’d love to have a fast e-ink display that allows this, and this is a field that is still preliminary in the iPad app-space. As soon as this becomes a viable solution, though, I’m pretty much there.

    It might not be reading novels, but I’m still reading many hours out of the day.

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