The end of the killer feature

At The Economist Ideas Economy event Matt Mullenweg, founder of WordPress, in an excellent talk about open source software, proclaimed the end of the killer feature. He asked the packed audience of high profile influentials how many people use Firefox, and how many of them have a plugin installed – and a good percentage of them raised their hands.

He has a point. For many kinds of products, it’s the end of the killer feature. Not everywhere, not for all kinds of products. But the trend is definitely the other way. And the trend has been happening for some time.

There was a day and time when software product launches hinged on features (or killer applications) and how the new features compared to the old features competitors had. The browser wars were perhaps a peak of this kind of guns blazing feature rich marketing warfare between two competitors.  Back then it was expensive to launch products and press millions of CDs, and ship them in boxes.  It took time and money and you needed expensive waves of promotion to propel each release forward.

But today, with websites, iPhone apps, and web browser plugins. new feature additions are cheap(er) and can roll in at any time: the feature set matters, but it matters less. What matters more are the overall user experience and the quality and depth of the plugins/apps available for people to use.

Curiously enough, Apple’s app store is leading the way in 2010, which is an inversion of what happened in the 90s with Microsoft and Apple. The success of Windows 95, in part, was based on the huge platform of applications it had compared to the Macintosh. It didn’t matter than the Macintosh had a better experience, the availability of apps drove the decisions for many people. With the iPhone, perhaps for the first time I can remember, a product has both superior design and a superior 3rd party platform.

But the new plague we have is the annoyance of syncing upgrades and compatibility.  To stay secure, we’re compelled to keep everything up to date. But my Firefox install has a half-dozen plugins, and every time Firefox itself updates, it causes a wave of incompatibility across those plugins.  I’ve had the same problem with WordPress too. I never know now when I upgrade one thing, how it will impact the others, and the more plugins and apps I have, the more of a problem this becomes.  It has happened before that a plugin, or app, is abandoned: , it can’t make the upgrade with me, and suddenly I’m surprised to be without something I’d grown to depend on. I’m dependent on a wider and wider set of people to get the features and things I want, which has its advantages, but its disadvantages too.

17 Responses to “The end of the killer feature”

  1. Jason Crawford

    Another major part of this is the trend towards web services opening up APIs, allowing third parties to innovate on features and fill feature gaps.

  2. Scott Berkun

    Jason: good point. Made me think of a few more points.

    First, it’s easier than ever to respond to someone else’s ‘killer feature’.

    Second, on my last comment about how this creates new problems. These problems are much worse for IT departments that have to maintain and field helpdesk questions for all of this stuff. They must hate all of this.

  3. Phil Simon

    Call it Enterprise 2.0 or whatever you like, but the days of the “big bang” launch or implementation seem to be coming to an end. Credit OS, agile software development methods, clouds, SaaS, SOA, and a hose of other technologies.

    Of course, as you point out, Scott, there are problems related to this new world. It’s probably a better one compared to 15 years ago, but it’s folly to claim perfection. Maybe in another fifteen years…

    And congrats on post #1,000.

  4. Atle Iversen

    Very interesting, even if I’m not 100% sure about the end of the killer feature ? For Firefox, I think the “killer feature” is actually web-browsing; but that is also the killer feature for IE, Safari, Chrome and Opera. Their “mini-killer” is plug-ins, Chrome has independent processes, Opera has “everything built-in”….but the most important feature is, at the end of the day, web browsing for all of them.

    Twitter has a killer feature that is very simple; max. 140 characters easily shared with anyone.

    HOWEVER, creating killer features has always been hard, and most new applications and tools don’t have any killer features at all – they just have features. And for web-applications, many of them have very simple (and easy-to-implement) features.

    For example, You may say that URL-shortener is a “killer idea”, but it is very simple to implement resulting in *many* different variations copied quickly.

    Anyway, the “syncing upgrades and compatibility” comments is *very* interesting; with web 2.0 applications releasing updates whenever they want to, and 3rd party plugins using their APIs, the “Firefox-plugin-fail-update” problem will only get bigger. I agree that most businesses and IT departments will try to avoid this at all costs !

  5. Michał Paluchowski

    The upgrade compatibility issue you raised is crucial here. What this will lead to is in fact less upgrades, especially in compatibility-aware environments such as corporations. Upgrades will simply be disabled, postponed and batched for the sole reason of avoiding pain of crucial features not working.

  6. David Locke

    So why is the end of the software industry a good thing? Why is it programmers abhor money, but somehow seem to get paid by someone?

  7. Scott Berkun

    David: Not sure who said it was the end of the software industry? Did I miss something? This to me is just a change in how software is made, and that has collateral changes in how its paid for, marketed and consumed.

  8. Michael Pate

    The Firefox and Plugin Upgrade Dynamic has been an interesting thing. There have been a couple of times that I have compiled a list of the add-ons I couldn’t live without. At this point, I have no idea where any of the lists are and what was on them. Becoming a Chrome user back when there was no addon capability only made that situation even more pronounced. These days, I think the only thing I find I must have is some sort of delicious bookmarking capability.

  9. Tom g

    Great article!
    I have been real lucky and not hd any problems upgrading…yet. I try to use as few plugins as possible and can sometimes find ones that can take the place of two others. I worry though evvery time I upgrade and hold my breathe. Many plugins upgrade as often as WordPress. I think it helps to not let thing get too far behind.

  10. rahayuni

    I dont think that this is the end of killer feature. if killer feature means firefox webbrowser. Firefox has a lot of plugins that very useful and automatically upgrade.

  11. dylan

    I see people talking about ‘killer features’ and the sort in relevance to firefox plugins, or simpler more, the web browser itself.

    This isn’t talking about a future that lacks future. It’s talking about the ‘killer feature/app’ mentality going away. Killer as in huge, in your face, right away.

    Think of it like game console releases. It’s considered a console should be released with some killer app. Halo on the Xbox, Final Fantasy on the Playstation. The longer the wait between console release and the release of these ‘killer apps’ is considered a blow to the console itself… and you can see that in the sales of the console. These types of titles are what move the consoles out the door, with out them on release day, you’re kinda buggered.

    In the personal computing world now though it’s more of a scene where you release a quality well rounded product that does what it says it does, and it does it well. Firefox is a web browser… that’s not ‘killer’, that’s just a product, there’s tons of web-browsers. How is web-browsing killer in any way from the design point of view? What happens is companies like Mozilla can pay attention to what they need to, and not on some flashy gizmo stuck to their foreheads to look cool. Later on down the line through expansions, updates, patches, plugins, and other ‘downloadable’ media that is relatively easy to get your hands on… it makes the early life dev cycle pretty easy. You can get a quality product out the door earlier and at a more affordable price and then worry about the flashy jewels afterward.

    That’s personally the main selling point of linux distros like Ubuntu for me. Getting new applications and the sort is a simple click of the button. Synaptic, apt-get, or more graphically inclined package manager (like the app manager in Ubuntu) makes it very easy to locate software I WANT, not the software some company threw a bunch of lights in the air for me to see.



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