Every newsroom knows the phrase “if it bleeds, it leads.” Technology news, thankfully, is devoid of such pain and suffering.
Still, the tech press has to indulge in its morbid side, even when the only fatalities involve companies and their code. Discontinued services, therefore, join “the deadpool,” while products that go out of style suffer a metaphorical “death” (even as they live on).
And then there are the “killers,” products with such potential that they supposedly put the competition in grave danger. Through the years, we’ve seem claims of Windows killers, Google killers, and iPhone killers. The practice even predates the page-view-driven web, in print publications such as InfoWorld (which talked of Microsoft’s Palm PC as a PalmPilot killer in 1998) and PC Magazine (which wondered if an Internet file transfer protocol for desktop printers might kill fax machines in 2000). I remember the PC gaming magazines of my childhood being obsessed with finding the next Doom and Quake killers.
Among all the morbid journalistic metaphors, this one is the worst, because it’s not merely hyperbolic or melodramatic. More often than not, calling something a “killer” turns out to be dead wrong.
For a time, tech publications seemed to have realized the folly of it. At this point, few would be foolish enough proclaim the next “iPad killer” or “Office killer.” Neither of those products are going anywhere anytime soon.
But with a new Apple product category just around the way, the temptation to trump up existential threats has been too hard to resist. We now have Time giving “Apple Watch killer” status to a collaboration between TAG Heuer, Google, and Intel, despite knowing nothing about the actual product. (Disclosure: I used to write for Time.) BGR also recently told us we shouldn’t expect “Samsung’s Apple Watch Killer” anytime soon, though rumors have only led to a handful of details.
That’s not to say popular products are invincible, or that it’s impossible to point out an incumbent’s most serious foes. But finding a true “killer” takes a special kind of prescience that very few industry observers have. Here, then, are some guidelines for distinguishing bogus punditry from genuine–if still hyperbolic–insight:
This point really ought to be obvious, but too often tech writers get caught up in the hype, and grant killer status to products they haven’t even tried. They want to justify the time they’ve taken to write about some nebulous offering, and it ends up blinding them.
Exhibit A: HP’s Slate PC, which some sites including CNet declared an “iPad-killer” after seeing a 30-second teaser video in April 2010. HP never launched the Slate as a consumer product, partly because Windows 7 wasn’t suited for consumer-grade tablets, and partly because HP (briefly) went a different way with WebOS and the TouchPad (another “iPad Killer” that quickly suffered its own demise). The Slate did eventually launch, but as an expensive, enterprise-only product.
Even when a product does make it to market, it might not be any good. That was the case with Samsung’s Galaxy Gear smartwatch, touted by Business Insider as an “iWatch Killer” in the fall of 2013 based on some early rumors. The original Gear was such a flop that Samsung replaced it less than six months later. And there never was an “iWatch” anyway; the Apple Watch, as it’s officially known, is hitting the market later this month.
2. The justifications for calling something a killer are often inconsequential, or even detrimental to the cause.
Sometimes, tech companies will practically beg to be killers, pointing to all the things they do that the incumbent doesn’t. But bells and whistles don’t make a killer product. They could even make the product worse.
In 2008, a company called Cuil invited comparisons to Google by pointing out how it indexed far more pages, and displayed its results across multiple columns. These features and a few others were enough for PC Magazine to take the “Google-Killer” bait. When the product actually launched, it was buggy and slow, and didn’t even return good search results (see lesson number one). By focusing on features in lieu of basic functionality, Cuil didn’t have the foundation for a Google killer. It shut down a couple of years later, and its patent applications were eventually bought by–wait for it–Google.
Another example was Palm’s Pre smartphone, hailed as “an iPhone Killer” by PCWorld in 2009. (Disclosure, again: I’ve contributed to PCWorld for nearly six years.) Like so many anti-iPhone stories at the time, this one points to the Pre’s physical keyboard as a strength, when it was actually a weakness that most smartphone makers have since abandoned. Other Pre features that the story pointed to–like copy-and-paste, MMS, and video capture–become unimportant just a few months later, when Apple added them to iOS.
No product gets to the top of its class by being unloved. And once customers are satisfied, they’re not going to defect so easily. This is why good products–successful ones, even–rarely kill the incumbent through direct competition.
Samsung has sold more than 200 million Galaxy S smartphones, but they haven’t stopped the iPhone from growing steadily. Chromebooks have established a meaningful market for themselves–especially in education–but they’ve barely put a dent in Windows. It might be boring to think that tech companies aren’t engaged in a winner-takes-all bloodbath, but it’s condescending to assume that everyone will mindlessly move toward whatever the tech press thinks is shiniest at the moment.
When killer products do emerge, their approach is often subtle, the killing indirect. It’s not easy to recognize at first–even when the clues are there.
Consider this Computerworld article from 1987, which insists that Microsoft Excel would not destroy Lotus 1-2-3. Because Windows was still in its infancy and not very popular, the author didn’t recognize how dangerous the combo of Microsoft applications running on a Microsoft platform would become. If Excel ever became a big enough threat, he simply assumed Lotus could compete by supporting Windows. In reality, Lotus was too slow to get on board with Windows, and struggled to compete in the era of the productivity suite. The industry’s move to Windows was the beginning of Lotus’s decline.
This pattern repeats itself throughout tech history. When Apple announced the first iPhone in 2007, a lot of pundits confidently declared that it was not a BlackBerry killer because it was too consumer-focused, and wouldn’t appeal to Research in Motion’s enterprise customers. They failed to realize that the iPhones people were using in their personal lives would soon become the phones they wanted to use all the time. BlackBerry maker RIM failed to understand this as well, and could never come up with a successful consumer phone as its enterprise base eroded. The necessary overhaul of its aging operating system came far too late.
Notice how in both the 1-2-3 and BlackBerry examples, the companies under attack contributed to their own collapse. Therein lies the most morbid detail of all, so rarely seized upon by the press: When a successful murder happens, it becomes hard to distinguish from a suicide.