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The Battle Is For The Customer Interface

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Editor’s note: Tom Goodwin is senior vice president of strategy and innovation at Havas Media.

Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate. Something interesting is happening.

Since the Industrial Revolution, the world has developed complex supply chains, from designers to manufacturers, from distributors to importers, wholesalers and retailers, it’s what allowed billions of products to be made, shipped, bought and enjoyed in all corners of the world. In recent times  the power of the Internet, especially the mobile phone, has unleashed a movement that’s rapidly destroying these layers and moving power to new places.

The Internet is the most powerful mechanism we can imagine to match perfectly individuals that need something, and people with something to offer. The moment started slowly by reducing complexity and removing the middle layer in the late 1990s. From insurance to early PC makers like Dell to travel agents, this time seemed to be an age where “direct” became a desirable moniker. This time seemed to favor scale and efficiency over service or brand, for commodities like insurance cover or processing power, the overheads of sales, marketing and retail footprint were stripped away.

By 2015 things changed. The balance of power between the different service layers is a jostle for control. Price-comparison sites first seemed to provide welcome traffic to airlines before airlines tried and failed to starve them of their business and promoted their own apps and websites as the preferred route. But it was too late. Services like Ocado once offered a symbiotic relationship with supermarkets, yet now supermarkets fear the power that such companies get when they get closer to the customer. In this age, the customer interface is everything. There are two approaches.

Full Stack Companies 

Full stack companies like Tesla, Warby Parker, BuzzFeed, Nest or Harry’s seek to ensure control by owning all layers. From R&D to marketing, from distribution to sales, these companies do it all. It’s a great way to keep profit in the family, yet it’s harder to scale and build.

The Interface Owners

The new breed of companies are the fastest-growing in history. Uber, Instacart, Alibaba, Airbnb, Seamless, Twitter, WhatsApp, Facebook, Google: These companies are indescribably thin layers that sit on top of vast supply systems ( where the costs are) and interface with a huge number of people ( where the money is). There is no better business to be in. The New York Times needs to write, fact check, buy paper, print and distribute newspapers to get their ad money. Facebook provides a platform for us to write our own content, and Twitter monetizes the front page of newspapers, which happens to now be the Twitter feed.

Our relationships are no longer with the service providers. Our mobile operators seem like dumb data pipes while WhatsApp provides the services we value and can monetize our attention.

The Interface Is Where the Profit Is

The interface layer is where all the value and profit is. Withings scales can cost five times than other weighing solutions because the addition of an app makes it smart health management, not just weight measurement.

Phillips Hue lighting can make 1,000 times more profit than a colored light bulb because it’s a home emotion system. Sonos beats any other music system I’ve tried because the experience of music while using it is delightful.

The value is in the software interface, not the products. It’s not just the smart home. Uber provides average cars in a premium way; Seamless makes the most disgusting of greasy kebab joints appealing and makes its margin from both sides. iTunes for many years took virtually all the profit made in the entire music industry by being just the thin software between the hard work making tunes and the money selling them.

Big Battles For the Customer Interface

The Internet age means building things is nothing other than code. We’re going to see a non-stop battle to leap ahead of each other. And also get more wide, Twitter may have started out as a microblogging platform, but it’s now aiming to be a way to exploit its audience to distribute TV content. Facebook’s attempts with news content now make it a news channel and thanks to Autoplay video, soon a way to watch TV content. Snapchat’s discovery features turned the IM platform into a way to consume TV content.

In the modern age, having icons on the homepage is the most valuable real estate in the world, and trust is the most important asset. If you have that, you’ve a license to print money until someone pushes you out of the way. So the question becomes, what are you going to do to stay there or get there? And once there, how do you exploit it?

Featured Image: Juergen/Shutterstock