Killer app

What is a Killer App?


What is a ‘killer app’?  The term, like so many modern neologisms, comes from computing. The original killer app was a programme called Visicalc which was the first spreadsheet, a new and exciting way of doing accounts, the prehistoric ancestor of today’s Excel.  When it suddenly appeared on the market, every accountant and every financial analyst realised that they must have it —  it made all their complicated calculations so much easier.  The trouble was that in order to run Visicalc, you needed a computer, and that the only computer that would run it was the Apple II – the dim and distant ancestor of the modern Mackintosh computer.  Visicalc itself cost something in the region of £100.  The Apple II cost something in the region of £1,000.  But if you wanted to run Visicalc you had to have the Apple II.  Visicalc was the killer app, the small application that sold a very much more expensive computer – and that is the definition of a killer app.

The term was popularised in history by Niall Ferguson in his book on Civilization. This was originally a TV programme, or series of programmes, and I suspect that the concept of a killer app was bolted on at the last minute. He had six killer apps to explain the rise of modern civilisation: Competition, Science, Property, Medicine, Consumption and Work.

I do not think these are killer apps at all. A killer app is something small that has much bigger consequences and I think something like work is not exactly small.  In any case there are too many of them. In my book I have just one killer app which is something small and insignificant, but which has enormous consequences: money.

Money is a killer app because crucially money gives you choice. Without money, or before money, payments were made in kind – in Ancient Egypt workmen were given their rations in bread and beer.   The result is a pyramid-shaped society with lots of serfs at the bottom, and a single king, or pharaoh at the top.  It is a ‘redistribution’ society where goods are redistributed from the top and you have no choice as to what you are distributed.

Money changes all this. Money is a neutral means of exchange. When you are paid by money you can choose how you spend your money and this choice is the beginning of freedom, and, I shall argue the beginning of civilisation.  I shall spend the rest of my book setting out to convince you of the crucial importance of money.


 Find out how money changes society