Unleashing the Killer App: Digital Strategies for Market Dominance

Unleashing the Killer App: Digital Strategies for Market Dominance

by Larry Downes, Nicholas Negroponte, Chunka Mui
They're everywhere, and more are coming. They're sending shock waves through the social, political, and economic systems of our time, and they're in the room with you right now. They are new applications so powerful they can transform industries, redefine markets, and annihilate the competition; you have the choice to either cultivate them or be trampled by them.


They're everywhere, and more are coming. They're sending shock waves through the social, political, and economic systems of our time, and they're in the room with you right now. They are new applications so powerful they can transform industries, redefine markets, and annihilate the competition; you have the choice to either cultivate them or be trampled by them. Unleashing the Killer App explains what these "killer apps" are and how to make them work for you.

Early killer apps were the compass, the steam engine, the cotton gin, and the Model T; in all, technologies, products, and services converged in radical, creative new ways to transform society's horizons. Today's killer apps spring from the digital realm: The personal computer, email, and the World Wide Web have profoundly influenced and even altered society far beyond their intended effects. Tempted by the promise of such devastating power, companies large and small, from vast multinationals to lean entrepreneurial start-ups, are remaking themselves into organizations that nurture killer apps rather than succumb to them.

How is it done? In this groundbreaking new book, strategists Larry Downes and Chunka Mui argue that managers must abandon many of their most revered planning and control processes. The most commonly used tools for setting and executing strategy, artifacts of the Industrial Age, make for inadequate weapons in today's digital arena. Leaders must replace control and consistency, contend Downes and Mui, with chaos and creativity, and old strategies must be jettisoned in favor of digital ones. Unleashing the Killer App demonstrates how managers are rewriting the rules of business to face this digital ultimatum.

Organizations with the healthiest environments for identifying and fostering killer apps will translate their digital strategy into market dominance. With Unleashing the Killer App, Downes and Mui offer a progressive guide to transforming your company into a place where killer apps are born. Drawing from their experience and research with leading global businesses, the authors:

  • Identify the 12 fundamental design principles for building killer apps
  • Illustrate these principles with classic stories from history and examples from a wide range of industries that have successfully developed killer apps
  • Examine the economic consequences of the diminishing transaction costs in cyberspace
  • Describe how to integrate digital strategy into an organization's planning process to create new markets, form new customer relationships, and change the product lines

Digital strategy, the authors suggest, is more than a vision statement. It is an attitude that thoroughly permeates winning businesses. Managed effectively, it becomes a potent operating model for the business itself. Unleashing the Killer App provides the tools, the techniques, and the proof that you need to incubate -- perhaps even release -- the killer app within your organization. Are you ready to unleash the killer app?

Editorial Reviews

Wired Magazine
A best-of-breed primer for executives cramming for the new economy.
New York Times Book Review
. . . a practical and persuasive guide.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
To succeed in business -- whether you work for a large corporation or own your own company -- you have to be ready with the 'killer application,' the next wave of cybertechnology. Owing to the rapidly changing business environment, particularly because of the World Wide Web, managers will inevitably lose out to competition if they're not utilizing the latest technology. Companies must alter their operating philosophy from a strategy intended to provide growth for a two- to three-year period to a constantly evolving approach. '"What has changed... are the basic principles underlying how you develop products, operate, and yes, even plan. To succeed digitally, you need to eat, sleep, breathe, and think digitally.' The authors have devised a 12-step program designed to be 'the beginning of a building code for commercial organizations in cyberspace.'

Among these strategies are structuring transactions as a joint venture, cannibalizing market share and 'hiring' the children. The authors are serious; they advise executives to listen to young people, including their own children. By watching them play with video games or computers, executives can learn more about their products than if they tried to perform the same tasks. The authors, affiliated with Diamond Technology Partners, an executive learning forum, provide various examples of companies that have successfully incorporated these strategies, including AOL, McDonald's and Lotus Notes. With an insightful foreword by Nicholas Negroponte, this book presents a convincing case for a radical shift in current business strategies.

A handbook for managers competing in the business milieu of the 90s. The authors argue that managers must replace control and consistency with chaos and creativity in order to identify and foster killer apps. They also build a case that the culture and capabilities of an organization, derived from the way it manages its people, are the real and enduring sources of competitive advantage. The focus is on revamping the managerial tools of the Industrial Age for the Digital Age. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.

Product Details

Harvard Business Review Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.59(h) x 1.06(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1: The Killer App

Christopher Brennan wasn't trying to start a revolution. The regional manager for British Petroleum's (BP) sixteen hundred gas stations in Germany, Chris was looking for new sources of revenue in a saturated, largely commodity-priced business dominated by a few brands. Then he got an idea. Gas stations were exempt from Germany's rigid shopping laws that required stores of all kinds to close by 6 P.M. during the week and by 2 P.M. on Saturday. Small convenience stores attached to the stations already sold basic staples and impulse food purchases 24 hours a day. Why not really exploit this regulatory loophole? Chris had heard about the future of electronic shopping from his colleague Matthias Richly. Why wait for the future? Why not invent it now?

Working with discretionary marketing funds (and largely on personal time), Chris and a small team created the BP multimedia shopping kiosk, a brilliant combination of digital technology and strategic partnerships with name-brand merchants and credit card companies eager to try a new marketing chanel. At the kiosk, consumers use a touch-sensitive screen to view short videos, select merchandise, and get advice on everything from party planning to the latest fashions. All goods ordered at the kiosk could be picked up the next day at the gas station or in some cases even delivered to the customer's home.

Early reception to the kiosk was enthusiastic. German shoppers, assumed to be hostile both to technology and to new services, embraced the kiosk at once. They seemed delighted to be able to order everything for a birthday party or a brunch, based on the recommendations of two-dimensional images. Theyconfounded traditional marketing dogma by using the kiosk to purchase precisely the kind of goods that no one expected anyone would want to buy off a computer screen in a smelly gas station—fruits, vegetables, and even meats. Shoppers began to use the kiosk to replace, rather than supplement, their regular grocery shopping. German consumers, it turned out, were fed up not only with the inconvenient shopping hours but with the quality of their shopping experience. Now they could avoid the crowds, the dirty stores, and the generally unhelpful attitude of the merchants. The kiosk tapped into a channel that conventional wisdom had told Chris didn't exist.

A month into a pilot deployment in Munich, Chris and his team had redesigned the interface several times and increased the number of participating stations. They began making long-term plans to exploit the stations' prime locations as staging and distribution centers, and to deliver the system itself directly to home computers using public networks. Chris and his team were beginning to see that their project had the potential not just to improve gas station revenues but to re-create the very notion of the "station" and the role it played in the consumer's life.

Then they did something really radical. They told the folks at BP headquarters what they'd been up to.

Is There a Strategy in the House?

Chris's story is a story of digital strategy. A manager suspends his disbelief, looks around at the available technologies that might play some role in his planning, forms a variety of alliances and partnerships, and then executes, fine-tuning the experiment not in the laboratory but in the marketplace, with the customer as a true partner. The final result, at least in this case, may be the worst nightmare not just for BP's competitors but for a wide range of other retailers, wholesalers, and distributors. The kiosk may be, in other words, a killer app.

We have purposefully chosen an example from outside the world of high technology companies to demonstrate the broad reach and applicability of digital strategy. What could be less digital than a gas station? What industry less vulnerable than oil and gas exploration, refining, and retailing? Who less likely to remake the face of the value chain than a lone manager, operating in a country that prides itself on conservatism and adherence to long-established rules of commercial engagement?

But hold on a minute. What does the BP kiosk have to do with business strategy? There was no strategy here, just an idea followed by an experiment. Chris did no long-term planning or detailed analysis of the industry. BP, like all large organizations, has a formal strategic planning process and a group of highly trained planners working away in Britannic House, its showcase corporate headquarters, in London. Chris was only vaguely aware of the planning activities of this group. He certainly wasn't acting on the basis of their recommendations.

Perhaps this is your immediate response. A few years ago it would have been ours. Strategy, after all, is the process that Michael Porter and others have taught us about: careful, analytical, and based on a thorough understanding of current market conditions and leverage points. Strategy is what big companies do from the top down. Strategy takes time to develop, time to execute, time to evaluate. What Chris did wasn't strategy, it was just an application, a reordering of relationships. In a word, it was creative.

In the new world, that is strategy.

The Killer App through History

It is too soon to say whether the BP kiosk, or even some future version of it, will prove to be a killer app, which we defined in the Introduction as a new good or service that single-handedly rewrites the rules of an entire industry or a set of industries. Certainly it has the potential. Over the last two years, electronic commerce, of which the BP kiosk is an example, has been touted as the killer app that will redefine the entire manufacturing-distribution-retail-finance business cycle, creating gigantic new markets while it undermines existing ones. Estimates for the speed and scale of electronic commerce range from the conservative (a few billion dollars by the end of the 1990s) to the extreme (the entire cash economy will go digital), but there's no doubt that it is a force with which to be reckoned. The question is when, not whether, and we suspect that you or someone in your organization is already worried.

Electronic commerce as a killer app is more a combination of digital technologies than any one particular new component, product, or service. Its novelty and its explosive potential come from an innovative mix of applications. These include multimedia interfaces (now combining sound, motion, text, and graphics); high-powered, increasingly cheap capacities for computing, data storage, and telecommunications; new forms of payment such as electronic cash; and improvements in security made possible by advanced encryption hardware and software. Electronic commerce is the sum of these parts, built on top of and delivered over the open, global computer network protocols and shared communications services known as the Internet.

Many more killer apps have arrived already, and still more are on the horizon. Consider the potential impact on your business of any of the following: Internet-ready televisions, cars, and other appliances, low-cost digital cameras, desktop publishing software and personal laser printers, intelligent software agents, and telephone services over the Internet. And how about applications now in development at the world's leading technology labs, such as rooms that respond to where you are and what you are doing, wearable computers, electronic ink, and personal area networks?

We don't know how or whether these developments will ultimately change civilization, let alone your business. It is easy, though, to find examples of killer apps from history that demonstrate just how unpredictable and indirect their impact can be. In Medieval Technology and Social Change, for example, historian Lynn White, Jr., studied several inventions from the Middle Ages that revolutionized not only the activities they were intended to affect but society as a whole.

Perhaps the most important of these medieval killer apps was the stirrup, which the Franks—Germanic tribes who ruled central Europe after the fall of Rome—adopted from an Asian design. The stirrup made it possible for a mounted fighter to strike with his lance without falling off his horse, greatly increasing the force that could be put behind such a blow. It proved decisive in the Franks' efforts to turn back the marauding Saracens who invaded western Europe in the eighth century, despite the superior numbers of the invaders...

What People are saying about this

Don Peppers
Unleashing the Killer App reinvents strategy for the digital age. It's a major contribution to our understanding of the age of the Internet and a must-read for anyone interested in succeeding in the interactive future. -- Co-Author, The One to One Future and Enterprise One to One
John Perry Barlow
Anybody who still thinks the dawn of the virtual age is a pipe-dream had better read this book. . . .Unleashing the Killer App is a scary book for those who've bet the farm on their idea of 'the firm.' -- Co-founder, Electronic Frontier Foundation
Alan Kay
Killer App is the Killer Navigator for digital voyages. -- Disney Fellow and Vice President of R&D, Walt Disney Imagineering
David P. Reed
Very thought-provoking and interesting. It will certainly stimulate a great deal of discussion and is quite accessible to a wide readership. Downes and Mui present a very compelling and novel set of arguments, quite relevant to today's business decision-makers. -- Former Vice President and Chief Scientist, Lotus Development Corporation
Geoffrey A. Moore
When confronted with market disruption and technology revolution, your biggest challenge is letting go of comfortable old behaviors before they kill you. Downes and Mui get you to move quickly by analyzing the inherent threats embedded in the digital age's 'killer apps,' and then showing you how to turn those apps into new types of competitive advantage. -- Chairman, The Chasm Group, and Author of Crossing the Chasm and Inside the Tornado

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