“Killer” products or “Transformative Devices?”

My brother and I had a recent discussion over the word “Killer” as it is applied about, or to, Apple products.  I am sure you have heard it before.  “The iPhone will kill the Blackberry.”  Or, “the Android phones (or Palm Pre, or…) are iPhone Killers.”  Each of these instances the word killer is used specifically to invoke a sense of removing the competitor from the market place.  [1. Some argue that this is a rather recent use of the word.  Perhaps, but  I have found instances of this usage dating back to at least 2004, and in tech terms, that is ages ago!]

Killer Products?

It seems clear that when people (generally the pundits) refer to a product as “a ____ killer” they usually mean that it is all over for that other product.  Pack it up, it’s gone. [2. My brother argues this point, positing instead that when they refer to a product as “a ___ killer” they simply mean that it will provide a strong competitor for the existing products. While that is in fact the more likely outcome, I argue that the intent of the writers in more than hyperbole.]  In fact, in a recent Mac Break Weekly Leo LaPorte specifically talked about driving RIM (makers of the Blackberry) “out of business.”  [3. Pundits believe these products to be killer products, I believe, because for them, the old products cease to exist.  I have heard a few who seem genuinely surprised to learn that the competitor not only survived but has thrived in their own niche.]

Rarely have we seen a product enter an existing product category and “kill” all the competitors.  I am sure we can find a few examples (the iPod itself comes to mind).  That isn’t to say that a product can’t enter into what appears to be one category and completely define a new one in the process.

For example, the iPhone didn’t “kill any other product.  It entered the “smartphone market” and has done remarkably well with the iPhone OSX operating system owning 28% of the smartphone market.  But…

Not “Killer” but “Transformer”

What’s important to note here is that while the iPhone wasn’t a “killer” product (it didn’t really drive anything out of the marketplace) it certainly was transformative.  That may seem obvious, since all of the latest smartphone products are now emulating many of the features of the iPhone.  But it is not just the look, and feel, of the iPhone that I mean.

The SmartPhone market space has been expanding significantly since the introduction of the iPhone.  Remember 2007, before the iPhone?  What phone did you have, or even want?  Was it a smartphone?  Unless your phone was for business use, then probably not.  Smartphones were the playtoys of the professional–the person who had to stay connected to their workplace.  The iPhone took the smartphone and made it personal.

In a sense, the Kindle has been transformative as well.  The Kindle hasn’t “killed” the paper book.  Many (probably most) people still prefer the sensory experience of paper in their fingertips.[4. In fact, my Sister-in-law said that very thing this weekend.  She prefers the tactile experience.]  The Kindle has opened the path for people to find other ways to read more, and take more reading with them.  Time once was we referred to the number of partially read books on our nightstand. We literally meant books that we would read as we went to bed.  That was “the place” for books and for reading.  The Kindle has transformed that experience.

The Kindle has transformed reading from one book carried at a time, to many books carried at all times, with the ability to add more books at any time. I have read more since getting the Sony e-Reader and then Kindle a little over 2 years ago, than I had in perhaps 10 years.

Perhaps even more “transformative” is that the eReader has allowed us to simply  co-mingle personal with professional.  With these devices we can now have, in one highly portable, easily accessible place, our professional documents (pdfs, word documents, and the like) and our personal reading (SuperFreakonomics, or Tolkien anyone?).

Remember, a few posts back I mentioned that Jeff Bezos talked about two Kindle product lines–the hardware and the reading experience.  Amazon has already produced Kindle Reader applications for the Mac, Windows, and the iPhone.  I even wrote that if an Android Kindle reader is developed, could we be that far from reading Kindle books on the Nook?  The point here is that Amazon, through their leader Bezos, has already talked about transforming the digital reading space, shifting the view away from a loyalty to any medium, and fostering a loyalty to the written word.

That said, the Kindle and other eInk readers are not without faults.

Tablet Transformation

So this brings us to the latest “killer” product (rumored to be) set to enter the stage.  If Apple introduces a tablet PC (where I use PC in it’s generic, original meaning of “Personal Computer”) then I suspect we can continue to hear about the iSlate being the latest “killer product” introduced by Apple.  Already we see the headlines, here, here, and back in April 2009.  [4. All those stories were only Apple killing the Kindle.  A Google search for “kindle killer” will reveal a number of products that are going to “kill” the Kindle.  For even more fun, Google iSlate killer and see how many vaporware products are being discussed that are poised to kill the vaporware product iSlate!]

Will a (still only rumor) iSlate “kill” any product?  Probably not.  Some firms may make a mis-step or two, but that would be their own failings [5. Perhaps similar to the failings of Apple in the 1990s.]  Can we expect it to be transformative?  You bet.  And here is why.

Given the history of Apple and their ability to innovate and create new market spaces, it is now no longer a stretch to imagine a world where eReaders, and Windows Tablet PCs continue to flourish, while an Apple tablet-like device carves some market away, all while creating a new dynamic environment.  So what would we see here?

The Windows tablet PC hasn’t been an abysmal product (it just hasn’t had significant market share.) It has traditionally been a niche product.  It has specific uses and thus a group of niche users.  Typically the uses for a tablet PC have been focused in the business world, used for those applications where handwriting has made sense.  The eReaders have been designed (and marketed) predominantly at the what I will call the “avid, voracious  reader” base–those people that love to read for the pleasure of reading.  Whether it is for knowledge or fun, they  consume the written word.   That is also a niche market.  These consumers, these “readers” are less interested in marking up and writing on their text than they are about devouring it.

So in steps a (mythical) Apple tablet product.  Imagine a device that is able to merge these two “spaces” into some new area.  Just like the iPhone created new spaces beyond the traditional “business oriented” smartphones, this mythical beast may be able to create a new, hybridized use-case blurring the lines yet again, only this time by taking two products from two very different worlds, and blending them in a new way.

The power of market space transformation.

(What are your thoughts on this?  Do you see these products as transformative? How would you envision the blending of the work oriented tablet with the pleasure oriented reading devices?  Leave your comments!)


2 thoughts on ““Killer” products or “Transformative Devices?”

  1. This discussion takes me back to the MBA required MNGMT 514 class with Dr. Russell at PSU Harrisburg. The discussion of incremental vs. Disruptive technological advances was the focus of the Gunfire at Sea case.

    In this case, Sir Percy Scott makes a series of improvements to his ship’s Gunnery in order to improve accuracy. The gear ratio was changed, the telescope was re-rigged and repositioned and he added a gun for practice. All parts by themselves served a purpose, but put together to operated in sync, continuous-aim gunfire was possible. The impact that these changes had were similar to many of the innovative changes made by Apple.

    Let’s look at the iPod as an example. If we start to dissect the parts of an iPod, we can see where the genius of the device is in taking existing technologies and melding them together into one device, not in true invention or innovation. There is a 2.5 inch HDD (at least in the older ones), a small screen, and software. The 2.5 inch HDD has been used in laptops for years. The small screen has been used in mobile devices like cell phones for years and software has been written for a better part of the past century.

    Not mentioned yet, but critical to the iPod making sense is the advent of a compressed sound file or video file that can be moved from a computer’s hard drive to a mobile device’s hard drive. With all these pieces, the iPod was born.

    One final aspect that I don’t want to forget: The prevalence of a mental map for mobile music created by the Sony Walkman back in the 1980’s.

    The real innovation in the iPod was in taking the digital media quickly amassing on consumer computers and make it mobile by making the iPod fit into the mobile mental map I just described.

    So, to respond to the question of whether products are killer or whether they just transform a market, I assert transformation is an immediate affect and killer is when a product has sticking power. Because we are discussing products that people use, it we need to include the slowness at which people adopt new technologies.

    The iPod transformed the mobile music market. Because the iPod ‘stuck’, it has killed other products such as the Sony Walkman. The killing is carried out with each individual decision by a consumer to purchase an iPod instead of a Walkman.

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