July 24, 2006


I would love to know the ratio of successes to failures for products and services touting themselves as an “[insert industry leader] killer”. To me, it reeks of insecurity and fears of lost investments. The tech media craves conflict and the companies play right into it, completing the cycle.

What’s left after the buzz? Has anything been killed in recent memory? What’s more, and especially in the case of the iPod, you can learn from the dozen or so previously touted “iPod killers”; it’s not a simple matter of features or pricing. You can feature-bloat your product all you want, but the iPod is successful because of it’s ridiculously strong brand. And like any strong brand, a community of loyal customers forms around it; people who are buying the brand as much as they are buying the product. Those are the customers you want, and this goes for any business; the ones that come to you, for you. The customers that are shopping for quality first, and are willing to pay a bit more for it.

If you want to actually put up a good fight, set the features aside and think about what your company means to the competitor’s customers. Are you bringing new ideas to the table? What can you offer as a company that they can’t? If it’s nothing but a cheaper price wrapped around a similar idea, the only customers you will steal are the fickle ones that jump ship when a cheaper mark shows up. Those are the same people who lowball you because they paid $50 for their last logo.

Give me some substance, put some thought into what you do, and I’m all ears.

Commentary (17):

1. Eric Meyer says… jul 24, 2006 | 4:05 pm
Has anything been killed in recent memory?

Well, Netscape (the browser) is pretty much dead, but of course there’s some debate over whether that was homicide or suicide.

2. Brian says… jul 24, 2006 | 4:25 pm

Kathy Sierra had an interesting post along these same lines.

3. Smallest Photo says… jul 24, 2006 | 4:27 pm

‘Zune’ would have piqued my interest far more had Microsoft declared the product to be an entirely new way of approaching digital entertainment. By pushing it as an iPod killer it lends yet more gravitas to a product that hardly needs it and only set them up for far more critical analysis. Additionally it serves to plant the seed that here Microsoft are followers rather than innovators. While there may certainly be truth in this, there’s no reason to go screaming it from the Redmond roof tops.

4. Jason Santa Maria says… jul 24, 2006 | 4:33 pm

Eric: Yeah, I think I would vote for suicide there.

Brian: Thanks for the link, those are great info graphics :D

Smallest Photo: exactly.

5. dotone says… jul 24, 2006 | 7:11 pm

Well, sometimes it’s a strictly strategic business action where selling a new product and developing a new brand is not as much of a target as much as pressuring the competitor. MS can do that! But when we speak of MS, we’re speaking of a giant extended cancer(not really evil) but there, ever where!

A successful brand can help other related brands of the same company to rise too, that’s the fear I guess?

Loyal users are like religion beleivers, aint they? They wouldn’t give up anything simply. Specially a classy brand and a quality product. But again, it’s way too complicated.

6. Virginia says… jul 24, 2006 | 7:38 pm

I believe that Adobe InDesign positioned itself as the ‘Quark Killer’, and they’ve pretty much succeeded in my estimation. But as Eric suggested of Netscape, there was a whiff of suicide about it too.

Your point’s a good one though.

7. Demian says… jul 24, 2006 | 7:40 pm

I pretty much agree with #5, pressure is very important. But specially you need time and cash to try to kill the competition, things that most of the startup don’t have. See the console wars. Nintendo was the dominant force first, then came Sony with the Playstation (they did a lot fo damage to Nintendo, albeit didnt’ kill it), and now it’s MS with the Xbox360 that’s leaving the turf very difficult for Sony. Anyway, the hype is all about Nintendo and it’s “wii” console.
The real “killers” don’t start as killers, though. Certainly, Google “killed” other big search engines, but if my memory is not wrong, it did not start as a “search engine killer” (I wonder if people still use Altavista or the poor remains of Hotbot)…

8. David M. says… jul 24, 2006 | 9:38 pm

Virginia: I think there was more than a whiff of suicide about Quark’s demise! Plus, in many ways, InDesign did exactly what Jason’s suggested, in that they really were bringing new ideas to the table. (A perhaps small but telling example: the day I realised I didn’t have to put up with non-antialiased text in a page layout app was the day I started saving up for InDesign.)

The problem, as several people have already mentioned, is that by setting out to be a ‘product-X-killer’, you shackle your own product to the competition. Where are you going to go when your competitors launch a new product?

9. Chris Kavinsky says… jul 25, 2006 | 9:40 am

I agree with David that Quark’s demise was more of their inability to improve than InDesign doing them in. It does prove that good competition will put a coµpany/product at a crossroads. I think the best example of killing the competition is to buy them out and “kill” the inferior product. Adobe is doing just that with the Macromedia buyout.

10. Bob R says… jul 25, 2006 | 4:12 pm

Quark wasn’t killed by Adobe; they died of their own arrogance. Treating your customers like squished pieces of dog poo stuck to the sole of your shoe just isn’t good business.

11. Joerg Beyer says… jul 27, 2006 | 7:14 am

> Quark wasn’t killed by Adobe; …

… and InDesign wasn’t a Quark killer in its first iterations. Remember the angry laughter that Adobe had to stand when ID 1.0 was out, back in those dark old days at the turn of the century? Advertising whichever product as a xy-killer is far from being sane, psychopathologically speaking. If your product is ‘a killer’, it will prove; if it does not, it’s ready for the intensive-care unit.

Regarding arrogance… well, Quark, or Adobe, or M$, (or SPSS), you name them, and their names are replacable. They’re in the money business, they’re not in the software business. And as a Mac user, I learn that lesson from those giants every time I have to use their software. They’re not exactly suicidal. They are unintentionally self-destructing in their attempts to tell us which features we need, which not, and when, and why. They are self-destructing because they don’t care about loyal users — why should they, their bloated self-esteem would suffer, if they would. See it this way: it’s not the product that has to prove its quality, it’s the customer who has to prove that he/she is worth to own OUR ADMIRABLE PRODUCT. In-group, out-group, it’s *your* choice.

It’s not about innovation, or quality. It’s about money and advertising fireworks. No substance, just noise.

Did you notice that I didn’t mention Apple? That’s because I’m a believer, but that’s another story, and not a short one… ;-)
If we like to speak about believers, we should define the sub-types. It’s not only about simply believing-without-thinking, sometimes it has something to do with personal experience (though believing without thinking can be a very helpful strategy… ;-).

Err … well … just my two cents.

12. Jason Beaird says… jul 27, 2006 | 2:29 pm

Quark is dead? When did I lose touch with the world of print? Where did I put my swatchbook? Where’s my damn rapidograph? <sob>Don’t make me go back…</sob>

13. Territan says… jul 28, 2006 | 9:31 am

It’s almost koan-like… the most effective “killers” don’t set out to crush their competition. They simply set aggressive, complete goals and work to achieve those. In so doing, they crush their competition.

Another observation is that you compete more effectively by aiming for where you want to be rather than where the leader already is.

14. n!ck says… jul 31, 2006 | 3:17 pm

Great post!

I’d like to share the only way Microsoft could ever kill the iPod… With their own product branding (Play Video)


15. Joe Clay says… aug 3, 2006 | 11:11 am

A lot of the reason I think Microsoft will fail is not simply because it’s incapable of innovation or because it has presented the ‘zune’ as an iPod killer. Microsoft will fail because it will never be as cool of a company as Apple. Teenagers who hate large corporations love Apple. Think about that one for a minute.

Microsoft is not only not as cool as Apple, Microsoft will never even be cool. They are so far from understanding the age groups they target with their products. Even though people own XBoxes, many people don’t like to advertise that. If Apple created a game system, people would be talking about owning one as loudly as possible.

The key is all about mindshare. It’s cool to have an iPod; anything else is basically a knock-off. Bloated features don’t help either. Who needs an FM tuner? If we wanted an FM tuner we could have just stuck with Walkman’s back in the ‘80s. Who needs to be able to send songs to other ‘zunes’ via WiFi? You’ll have to find another idiot who actually bought one first. The iPod is simple, elegant, and a status symbol…I doubt the ‘zune’ will even be remembered in 3-5 years (of course that’s after it debuts in 3-5 years). How stupid is that? They’re trying to beat the iPod of today and estimate it will take them 3-5 years to just complete that task. Microsoft has become a joke.

16. Territan says… aug 7, 2006 | 11:19 am
Joe Clay: Who needs to be able to send songs to other ‘zunes’ via WiFi?
That’s not necessarily a silly feature. I’m not sure how often it happens, but I’ve heard stories (urban legend?) about iPod users trading jacks and sampling each others’ music.

The WiFi connection is the next logical step of that: allow people to share the music in their collection, without copying and without having to swap headphone jacks. It might even qualify as an innovation, or at least capitalizing on an existing user behavior.

Still, that feature requires there to be some saturation, so your objection may still stand.

17. Corby Simpson says… aug 18, 2006 | 2:47 pm

As much as I hate to say it and I know that Adobe will be releasing a new version in 2007, I think that Director has been killed by Flash…

Director was king of multimedia in the 90’s and even early y2k era. Now, it’s still used for development, but not to the same extent… Flash can do most things that Director can for 1/3 the price… why not?