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A New Kind of Productivity Application

by Tim O'Reilly
Nov. 25, 2002

One of the off-the-cuff observations I made in the variant of my talk Watching the Alpha Geeks that I delivered at the O'Reilly Mac OS X Conference was that the iApps represent a new kind of productivity application. A number of people have asked for a written reference for that thought, so I thought I'd better blog it.

The thought begins not with Apple, but with Doug Carlston, the founder of Broderbund Software. When I first met Doug, he was explaining Broderbund's business to me. He explained that they had three lines of business: games (like Myst), "edutainment" (like Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego), and productivity applications (like Print Shop Pro.)" I asked, "Where does Family Tree Maker fit in?" "Oh, that's a productivity application. We consider a productivity application to be any application where the user's own data matters more to him than the data we provide."

"What a great definition!" I thought, and filed it away for future reference, trotting it out as often as appropriate, because it is a profound thought that ought to be in as many software developers' heads as possible.

When adapting my talk for the OS X Conference, Doug's remarks came back to mind, because it seems to me that Apple's iApp designers understand them in a profound new way. For years, we've let office productivity applications define "productivity," yet Apple knows that the new frontier of productivity is not a new spreadsheet, word processor, or email client, but rather, tools for managing a consumer's growing array of digital assets: photos, music, and videos.

I'm not sure that anyone has plumbed the depths of the new productivity suite. Clearly, as we all own larger and larger hard disks, with more and more data on them, productivity will mean digital asset management at a new scale. We not only need to store and retrieve our photos and music, we need to edit, share, and annotate them. New digital asset types are coming onstream all the time, and new devices for capturing and exchanging them. So there's a brave new world ahead, not only for Apple users, but also for Windows users as Microsoft and various other software developers get into the act.

Meanwhile, the "alpha geeks" are already extending the simple databases in the iApps, adding more robust databases, scripting, and the like.

Tim O'Reilly is the founder and CEO of O'Reilly Media, Inc., thought by many to be the best computer book publisher in the world. In addition to Foo Camps ("Friends of O'Reilly" Camps, which gave rise to the "un-conference" movement), O'Reilly Media also hosts conferences on technology topics, including the Web 2.0 Summit, the Web 2.0 Expo, the O'Reilly Open Source Convention, the Gov 2.0 Summit, and the Gov 2.0 Expo. Tim's blog, the O'Reilly Radar, "watches the alpha geeks" to determine emerging technology trends, and serves as a platform for advocacy about issues of importance to the technical community. Tim's long-term vision for his company is to change the world by spreading the knowledge of innovators. In addition to O'Reilly Media, Tim is a founder of Safari Books Online, a pioneering subscription service for accessing books online, and O'Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, an early-stage venture firm.

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