The worlds of on-demand and deep-linking took another step closer yesterday when ride-sharing giant Uber announced a new and easier mechanism for app developers to incorporate a button for users to request an Uber driver. Much in the same way that Foursquare bills itself as a “location layer for everything on the internet,” as CEO Dennis Crowley put it in a Street Fight Summit fireside chat, Uber is rapidly positioning itself as the transportation layer for everyone on the internet. It’s already integrated in a number of apps, most prominently (and logically) Google Maps (Foursquare is another). Tighter integration with a broader selection of other properties, and specifically the ability to have the Uber button appear adjacent to any address will further cement Uber as a if not the go-to transportation option.
It’s easy to envision how this might play out with other activities such as dining out or shopping for which consumers might need a ride. Book a dinner reservation with OpenTable, then set up a ride to the restaurant, all in one place. Find a holiday deal at the store across town in the RetailMeNot app? Instead of just getting directions, book a car to take you there. These connections may not exist (yet), but when I spoke recently with RetailMeNot vice president of communications Brian Hoyt, the coupon mega-site was on the verge of rolling out a new app-to-app feature that enables RetailMeNot to access deals from other retailer apps.
It’s also easy to envision more of these integrations beyond the obvious connections between transportation and complementary activities. Grocery delivery unicorn Instacart, for example, already serves an Uber-like function for recipe platforms such as AllRecipes.com and Yummly, enabling shoppers to buy ingredients and have them delivered from a local store. It’s sort of like having buy buttons on social networks, although seemingly more useful (and looking likely to be used with greater frequency).
Those all may sound like merely incremental user experience improvements, but they help solve a pain point for today’s time-starved, over-app-inated consumer. As Mark Sullivan pointed out in a recent Street Fight column, “With deep linking, Apple has closed the loop on phone, web, and app data, giving users all the information they need in a manner that’s smarter, faster, and all around better at fulfilling user needs. iOS 9 even makes indexed information discoverable regardless of whether the correlated app is installed. iOS search will recommend useful apps based on search terms and allow users to click to install.” The advent of 3D Touch on the latest iPhones introduced in September, takes deep linking “a step further by not forcing you to even leave the app you’re in,” noted Michael Boland. “It will take a while for hardware compatibility to cycle in,” he added, “but this could fundamentally transform mobile interaction. The old way will eventually seem binary — either you tap or you don’t.”
Deep linking, however compelling, isn’t the only option. Smaller independent players like Delivery.com, which recently launched an app combining its four core delivery categories — food, groceries, laundry, and alcohol — are trying to tackle the same integration challenge essentially by building a single mega-app. (Street Fight spoke with Delivery.com CEO Jed Kleckner earlier this year.)
The still-unanswered question — and the one with the farthest-reaching implications for local businesses — is whether the mashup of deep linking, on-demand, and innovations such as 3D Touch will simply accelerate the process of concentration underway in the mobile app space. A small handful of apps — the majority owned by either Facebook or Google — already comprise the largest mobile audiences and account for a large portion of consumers’ mobile time. Powerful platforms may gain in strength by adding in on-demand service layers like Uber, Instacart, Postmates, and others, which will, in turn, benefit these providers by giving them greater scale and distribution. Their ability to aggregate demand may direct more consumers to local businesses, but potentially at the cost of those consumers thinking of themselves more as customers of the on-demand service rather than the local business from which it sources its deliveries. In that scenario, local businesses still play a vital albeit somewhat reduced role — more supporting player than star of the show.
On-demand services may think globally in terms of their ambitions and expansion, but they act locally by default. With deep linking and app integrations, they will become a more indelible feature of the local business landscape.
Noah Elkin is Street Fight’s managing editor.