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Book Review: Unleashing the Killer App

Friday, November 22nd, 2002 by Steven Morgan Friedman

Unleashing the Killer App
by Larry Downes and Chunka Mui
Published by Harvard Business School Press

Did we really take 1998 seriously? At the height of the dot-com days, a time in which Pets.com was funded and the Internet was poised to change the fundamentals of human nature, even the most respectable publishers, writers, thinkers felt the pressure to admit that something was changing and those who didn’t were curmudgeons or, even worse back then, Luddites.

Today, when the rhetoric of the Luddites has triumphed over the rhetoric of the dot-coms (although the technology of the dot-coms is only now triumping over the non-technology of the Luddites!), it is a humorous experience to re-read the earnest rhetoric of 1998. This is precisely how I felt when I read “Unleashing the Killer App,” by Larry Downes and Chunka Mui, and published by the respectable Harvard Business School Press. Did the great business school really take itself seriously when it was publishing these words?

Standards of social scientific evidence are lifted for the book, as are serious case studies — ironically, the method for which HBS itself has gained fame. Instead, the book is full of great generalities — all of which may or may not be true but the book makes no compelling cases. With a straight face, it urges businesses everywhere to, for example, “cannabalize your markets” and “give away the store” and “destroy your value chain” and the justification for these is a clear articulation of the vision for the changing world. But “evidence” beyond the most flimsy examples is not present (so an online newspaper should give away its content for free just because you tell us the New York Times to San Jose mercury news do it, too? That is certainly a logical leap!). And it is written with a journalist’s attitude, removed from the hard lessons of real life that no company or person can, for example, easily or readily cannibalize itself, or even that doing so would be worth it.

The book, for all its flaws, is a book of its time, and it should always be remembered as a book whose spirit captures perfectly that of 1998. And it is at least somewhat unfair of any modern to criticize those who came before him whose only flaw was not having the wisdom of hindsight that we have. But, no matter how great the boom around you may be, there is no excuse for the suspension of the rules of reason. It is precisely this suspension that got us to where we are today.

If you still want to buy this book, you can order it at amazon.com.