Hunting the Killer App for Apple's iPad

After using the Apple iPad for few months, talking to users, and helping develop applications for it at Fjord—the London-based digital design agency where I am a managing partner—it is clear that we are still in search of killer apps. I don't think reading digital books and Web surfing on the couch will suffice to fill the bill and fire up the masses.

I was surprised during the launch that Apple (AAPL) didn't provide a stronger sense of what it sees as the iPad's potential killer apps. (Knowing Apple, this was a conscious, perhaps wily decision.) Nor does the advertising for the iPad offer firm clues. Rather than trumpeting that the iPad is bound to be the next great computing platform—which Apple surely knows—the company invokes the sense that its device permits a new kind of casual computing.

This reminds me of early Kodak (EK) advertising through which George Eastman educated the public to create "Kodak moments" by taking photos. Images of attractive people using iPads on the sofa serve the same purpose: These are "iPad moments."

Still, to become truly useful—even essential—the iPad needs more of a raison d'être. By my reckoning, every significant new technology platform has had a killer application, and each killer app embodies five characteristics:

It does not exist when the new platform is launched

It is always a surprise—and is usually introduced by a newcomer

It solves basic needs in a fresh way, transforming usage

It is cross-generational

It shapes our language

one killer app is all that's needed

The personal computer had ample killer apps, mostly from startups: Visicalc, Lotus (IBM) 1-2-3, and Microsoft (MSFT) Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. The Mac had desktop publishing from Seattle startup Aldus, later bought by Adobe (ADBE). The Web had browsers from startup Netscape and later Microsoft—plus search, typified by Google (GOOG).

Historically, the mobile phone has had only one killer app, aside from talking—texting (also known as SMS). No matter: SMS was a world-transforming gold mine. Sometimes it takes but a single killer app to make a platform.

The last listed characteristic of killer apps fascinates me the most because one of the highest forms of design is the creation of language. I realized this when I read master chef Ferran Adrià's book, A Day at el Bulli, in which he describes the four levels of cuisine. The first is to cook a recipe; the second is to modify it; the third is to create new recipes; and the last is to create a new gastronomic language.

The most significant killer apps do this. We now speak of Googling as a verb. PowerPoints have alas, become synonymous with interminable meetings. And we all find ourselves Friending (or Unfriending) people on Facebook—or FB, as my kids call it.

So what will be the tablets' killer apps? I don't think we've seen them yet. To be sure, some providers are giving it an early go, especially the media. I believe that newspapers and magazines will be transformed on tablets. At Fjord, we've been involved in creating several media apps, including one released recently for Metro, a free newspaper in the U.K. That said, I don't think the present generation of apps will become killers. They need to be more real-time and dynamic, with content that has greater relevance to users and their location. The iPad is still new and most publishers are simply trying to get to market quickly, rather than stepping back and transforming their business models.

personal "information dashboards?"

Transformations are expensive and time-consuming. I don't think any newspapers yet think of iPad apps as the new printing presses, although they are. We're at the Gutenberg stage on this journey, with lots of innovation still to come: We need a new experience that merges reading, watching, listening, editing, and communication. There's no name for it. When the new paradigm is invented, shaped, and perfected, it will likely become a noun and a verb at the same time.

Another promising avenue for tablets is what I'll call managing life information. We're entering the era of cloud computing, where data and applications are stored in the Internet. For cloud computing to work, users need a reliable (and relatively speedy) online connection. The proliferation of files and data in the cloud also may make it more difficult than ever for users to keep track of their digital "stuff."

That's where the iPad could come in. With the right app, a tablet could become a sort of "information dashboard," a control panel that lets users find, manipulate, and share their personal information, regardless of where it resides and whether or not they're currently online. In technical jargon, the iPad would be comparable to a cached front end to the cloud. To make the user interface work, I'd suggest moving away from the classic "files and folders" hierarchy to something more attuned to the way people remember information, such as a time line.

Last but not least, I think there's opportunity to take better advantage of the iPad's multi-touch screen technology. Today we see apps that are scaled up from the iPhone, permitting the use of two fingers. With the iPad's larger screen, I can foresee two-handed apps that open up whole new avenues of user input.

It's well known that owning a platform gives you power, while inventing a killer app can lead to dominance. That's why everybody wants to come up with the next big thing. I think we'll quickly recognize the iPad's killer app or apps. For now, we've got work to do. Let's start cooking.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.