Google, Siri, Alexa Are An Abstraction Layer Over Your Apps

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In the stone ages of mobile a couple of years ago, you actually had to tap on an app icon and open an app in order to access its functionality. While backwards, onerous, and tedious, this ensured that if I was ordering Air Jordans from Shoe Giant #1 or a Big Mac from Ronald McDonald, I would have at least a couple of interactions with the Nike brand or McDonalds.

Now, now so much.

Today, Google announced that “Hey Google” is the new front door to your app’s functionality:

  • Hey Google: order a smoothie from Postmates
  • Hey Google: send a message on Discord

  • Hey Google: start my run with Nike Run Club
  • Hey Google: start a playlist on Spotify
  • Hey Google: check my balance on Mint

This is good for me and good for people who use technology. It’s easier, quicker, simpler. I have fewer things to remember, fewer apps to search for, less time to waste in finding them.

Listen to this story on the TechFirst podcast:

One magic phrase opens universes of possibility.

As such, this kind of move was inevitable, as I mentioned recently: “Siri Shortcuts And Google Assistant Shortcuts Reveal The Future (And Danger) Of Smart AI Assistants.” It’s also going to continue, and you’re going to be able to do more and more just by stroking the genie in your phone. Or in your smart speaker.

But this move is also potentially troubling for app developers and publishers.

Every time a customer or a user gets the functionality that your app provides without the bother of having a branded experience in your app, you have to wonder: could Google or Apple or Amazon just replace me? In other words, are smart assistants becoming abstraction layers that hide lower-level functionality? And, could Google as easily order a mocha whatchamacallit from Starbucks or Some Random Other Coffeehouse?

An abstraction layer in programming is something that hides detail. It’s the curtain the Wizard of Oz imposes between users and the machines, gears, and levers of baseline functionality.

Recipients of the wizardry use their computers and phones without knowing anything about Cocoa or C#. And they’re happy not to know, because the abstraction layer allows them to focus on the product as opposed to the production: the result, not the effort.

A strong brand like Starbucks and a fanatic fanbase that won’t settle for anything but their favorite eight-word caffeinated confection might make some companies safe.

But is your service, your product, your result so good that it can’t be substituted?

Apple’s put a payment layer and potentially a registration layer between app publishers and customers in Apple Pay and Sign in with Apple. Google has similar technologies. That means they potentially own both payment and identity, two massive components of a customer relationship. And these are good things, because I don’t trust Random Developer #37 with my credit card and I don’t trust Big Dumb Corp #83 to manage my identity without getting hacked by some script kiddie in his underwear.

But they do separate brand and customer.

(And centralize hacking risk.)

They also increasingly tighten the bond between Apple and iPhone owners, or Google and Android users. They tighten the relationship between platform owners and people while simultaneously disrupting the relationship between app publishers and people.

The question for app publishers and brands will increasingly become … are you just the supplier of a commodity? Can anyone else take your place? Are you more than just a digital sharecropper?

That reality is not completely here yet.

But it’s also not very far off.

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