Killer App, circa 2013

Anyone have fond memories of the term ‘killer app?’ More to the point, what would a new killer app for the banking and finance world look like? What exactly would it do?

It’s not that the phrase has gone away, but over the years, it seems to have been overtaken by marketing hype—so many new releases are routinely tagged this way that a collective yawn seems to be the only appropriate response. That’s unfortunate, because a true killer app really does make a huge difference. It can by itself generate an industry shift, propel a new technology paradigm and markedly alter end-user habits, particularly by introducing business professionals and home consumers alike to new ways of doing things.

With regard to finance, Visicalc played exactly this role more than 30 years ago. As the first spreadsheet to appear on PCs, specifically the Apple II, it helped change the perception of the entire field of computing. What were previously seen as toys for geeks became serious business tools, and a whole generation climbed aboard the technology train. The Lotus 1-2-3 similarly propelled sales of the IBM PC, which in turn spawned a vast hardware and software industry. And while it’s easy to be dismissive of video games as creative time-wasters, releases like Quake helped drive the development and adoption of 3D accelerators in home computing, which in turn raised the stakes for other technologies.

These days, perhaps more than new hardware, one tool that propels other forms of innovation is the API, or application programming interface. Simply put, by serving as a common language that enables different kinds of software to communicate with each other, it eases and speeds the development of new apps—perhaps even killer apps.

Intuit seems to think so. In search of the “next killer finance app,” the company, for the first time in its history, is opening the APIs to its financial data service in the U.S. and Canada. The move gives third-party developers unprecedented access to the financial data service that powers Quicken, QuickBooks, Mint.com, and FinanceWorks. In fact, developers can now to tap into transaction information from 19,000 financial institutions, auto-categorize the data, and embed it into whatever applications they develop.

Innovation in this field has frequently been driven by the ease with which vast amounts data can be accessed, collated and packaged. The new releases have the potential to take developers and users alike many steps forward in harnessing new capabilities. The new APIs are available on a limited basis now through the Intuit Partner Platform, with wider availability to come in December.

One early program that has already built on the new service is SaveUp, a free rewards game for saving money and reducing debt. Customers can securely access data from just about any financial source, while the company tracks their financial actions and offers rewards accordingly.

Here’s the thing about killer apps: We never see them coming, yet when they do, we wonder how we ever got along without them. It’s easy to say that we already have more apps than we need, while financial institutions and independent software developers alike come up with new ones every day. Sure, new mobile devices keep emerging, and we need new software just to keep up. But completely new applications offering completely new capabilities that will change how we do everything? That’s not going to happen.

Sure—just like we were never going to use our phones to do anything but talk.

So, getting back to the key question, what will a new killer app for finance look like? Rampant speculation welcome.

*Photo credit:

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Big Data: The Link From Dinosaurs to Batman to Small Business

It’s hard to escape the hype around big data these days. From magazines to newspapers to TV, discussions of big data are everywhere. But for the average business or software developer, what does big data mean? What is its promise or potential? The answer depends on the business.

For Google, Facebook and others, big data is intelligence and revenue rolled into one. In cases like the British Museum, it’s about preserving and making freely available a corpus of better than 150 million assets, from maps to musical scores. But even the smallest businesses can begin to use data in new and creative ways.

Consider the case of seasonal retail businesses, such as hardware stores. In years past, store owners manually managed inventory, attempting to anticipate demand for their wares. Today, forward-looking businesses incorporate big data into that decision-making process.

Some turn to predictive algorithms, which are primed with years of inventory data to render better, more accurate projections of demand. Others factor freely available weather data into their inventory predictions. When long-term drought conditions are forecast, as they were prior to this spring, intelligent hardware store owners could lower their inventory of garden hoses and sprinklers and stock the parts necessary for deeper wells that may be dug.

And it goes far beyond internal or general sources, such as weather data. Two years ago the New York Times examined Netflix data to determine which movies were being rented, by neighborhood, in a dozen cities. If you were an entrepreneur looking to open a comic book store, knowing where the fans lived for movies like “Batman Begins,” “Captain America” or “Thor” would be invaluable. Or if you were opening a cooking supply store, planning your location and marketing around which boroughs were consumed by Julie and Julia could be a real competitive advantage.

The nonprofit sector can also benefit from big data. U.S. government census data, made available via the open API at www.census.gov, offers insights on poverty and homelessness. The Cornell Program on Applied Demographics, for example, uses the API to layer poverty statistics onto a map. From there, a savvy nonprofit could turn to the ProgrammableWeb’s collection of nonprofit APIs to tap into databases of potential volunteers.

Whatever the business and whatever the industry, there are datasets – some of them very large indeed – that can help make better decisions faster. The key to effectively using big data is to think creatively about how it can be leveraged. Consultants or contractors won’t necessarily see the same possibilities that you will. But keep an open mind, and big data will more than justify its hype.

*This post originally appeared on the Intuit Network.

About Stephen O’Grady: Stephen is an industry analyst and cofounder of RedMonk. He is based in Maine, a frequent traveler, ardent RedSox fan and focused on helping companies understand developers better and, in general, helping developers do what they do best. He is a paid contributor to the Intuit Network.