Mic Wright joins Tech City News as a weekly columnist. In his first piece he picks apart the growing number of apps that give us what we want at the push of button.
Lazy, anti-social people: they’re your ultimate customers. To be assured of success today, create a service that appeals to people just active enough to push a button but too lazy to check their bank statements.
Ideally, you should also ensure that customers can limit their interactions with other humans to the barest minimum. If you follow the money and the growth figures, it looks like we’re soon going to be living in an Uber-powered future where our gratification grows ever more instant. Why cook when there’s Graze boxes and JustEat? Why hail a cab when there’s an app to do it for you? Why bother with queues when Square’s new Square Order app will soon let you skip them?
Uber started as a car service but the mutterings of their cold-eyed CEO Travis Kalanik combined with marketing experiments including variously differing chocolate, condoms and even kittens plus a courier pilot in New York, have long suggested there’s more to come. Uber isn’t a taxi service, it’s an algorithm-loving logistics firm with a knack for knowing how to match supply with demand and price it accordingly.
It doesn’t have to stop with cars and it won’t. While its latest trick, UberJet allowing well-heeled customers to charter private jets to the Cannes Film Festival, is more marketing, it can afford to think big.
When it comes to apps easing our existences, the UK and Europe are way behind the pampered princelings and princesses of San Francisco. The Wall Street Journal was wringing its hands two years ago about whether tools for outsourcing your least favourite chores such as TaskRabbit might just be a bad thing. TaskRabbit only launched in the UK in November and its iPhone and Android apps went live here last month. Our opportunities for smartphone-enabled laziness are only just beginning to ramp up.
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But the US has shown there are limits to how niche apps dedicated to snagging the lazy can be.
Cherry, an app that seriously described itself as “Uber for car washes”, sank beneath the suds in December 2012 after a year in business and $5.25 million in funding from a selection of over-optimistic funds. It’s just one of many services that failed after fooling themselves into believing that all you need to disrupt an industry is a nice looking iPhone app and a snazzy name. BlackJet, which tried to turn on-demand private planes into more than a marketing gimmick, made the same mistake. Despite the involvement of Uber co-founder Garret Camp and celebrities including Jay Z and Ashton Kutcher, it flamed out last year.
With a $2,500 yearly membership fee and trips costing $4,000 BlackJet was an extreme example of app-enabled laziness but it tapped in to the same underlying psychology. Whatever the service, whatever the app, the real selling point is a feeling of superiority and of futuristic control. But as we become enamoured by these pampered Pavlovian routines, we spend little, if any, time thinking about the people paid to deliver those services or where the trend will lead us. It’s easy to ignore wages falling when the person serving you is behind a tinted screen or acting as an unseen errand boy.
Just as H.L Menken’s aphorism that “no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people” remains true, no one will ever go broke correctly estimating the extent of our laziness.
But we should think carefully about what apps and services we come to lean on. Just because we can have what we want at the push of a button doesn’t mean we should. Lazy people are the ultimate customers but we should ask ourselves if that’s something we’re comfortable with.