I’ve been thinking a lot about this notion of the “interface layer” in web services and how it’s changing the economy and the way money flows.
The concept of the “interface layer” is pretty simple. It says that the old economy was about building tangible infrastructure — cars, buildings, stores, etc. And the new economy is about building really slick and beautiful and easy to use web services (interfaces) on top of that infrastructure;AirBnB for lodging, Uber for ride sharing, OpenTable for restaurants, Expedia for planes, etc. These companies don’t own buildings, cars, restaurants or planes, but they make a lot of money by allowing consumers to easily access these things. It’s no longer about building infrastructure, it’s now about building beautiful, slick, mobile, easy to use ‘layers’.
One of the big complaints about these layers (or interfaces) is that many believe that they commodotize the underlying asset. Uber users don’t really care which cab company the driver is a part of, they just want the cheapest ride that gets them from point A to point B. This detachment from the brand drives down the cost of the ride and drives down the income that goes to the driver. Uber is commodotizing drivers. And drivers need to think really hard about how they’re going to separate themselves from the pack if they want to continue to charge a premium.
Uber’s layer is winning the taxi space.
But with the increasing use of mobile and the decreasing use of the desktop web, mobile is quickly becoming a platform on its own. And soon, instead of Uber being the ‘commoditizer’, Apple’s iPhone or Google’s Android could easily commodotize Uber.
Let me explain. Today, if I want a ride somewhere I go to Uber or Lyft or Sidecar or some other app to book a ride. This is a bit clunky in that it’s hard to know which of the services has the best option for me based on the time of day and where I want to go. I have to download all of the ride sharing apps and scroll through them to find the best deal.
Of course I’m not the only one that’s annoyed by this. Very soon (if not already) we can expect that there will be services that will aggregate all of the top ride sharing apps into one so I can pick the best option for me (just like Kayak does for plane tickets).
This would be really bad for Uber. Now they’re the one getting commoditized.
But when mobile is a platform, it gets much worse.
Apple and Google could easily add their own layer on top of these aggregation layers. At some point soon, instead of going to the Uber or Lyft app, I could just open up Siri and say, “give me a ride to SoHo”. And Apple will scan all of the ride sharing apps or ride sharing aggregators (even if I haven’t downloaded them from the App Store) and deliver the best result. This is absolutely what Siri wants to become — the entry point to the web.
In an extreme example, I could tell Siri, “take me to my friend’s apartment and let’s stop somewhere to pick up a bottle of wine that pairs well with Italian food.” Siri then decides which ride sharing app, which business directory app, and which wine app to use to bring me the best experience.
Apple could easily cut a deal with a ride sharing aggregator, Yelp and HelloVino (a wine discovery app) and take a fee from each of them. In this case, not only is the Uber driver getting commodotized, so is Uber and so is the ride sharing aggregator.
This is an important issue for any web based service to think about. The new economy might be less about the battle for the most beautiful interface and more about the service that can get closest to the user. And it’s beginning to look like platforms rather than interfaces might win the war.