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The Uber future: A magic layer is coming

The on-demand economy is booming, with well-funded start-ups promising to satiate your every desire, be it transportation, booze or medicine.

The problem is, you need an individual app for each one of them. If I want to book lunch at Reynard in Brooklyn, I make a reservation using Open Table, then dial up Uber to take me there. Then I might open text messaging to let my contact know I'll be early or late.


Mobile app concierge
Stefano Oppo | Getty Images

Ideally, there would be a middle man – call it a virtual assistant, a better Siri or Facebook's rumored "M" service – that takes care of all of it for me.

Recently, Ramzi Yakob, a strategist at digital-marketing firm TH_NK in London, wrote an insightful piece in Marketing Magazine, suggesting that a messaging user interface would be the primary way we use these services in the future.

Yakob imagines it might sound something like: "M, book me a cab," or "Alfred, can you help with my dry cleaning today?"

He says opening app after app is unnatural and simply won't succeed.



"We are rapidly approaching a future where a messaging UI becomes the primary way in which we interface with the web of connected services," Yakob writes. "From a consumer perspective, this is amazing. Your experience becomes keenly focused and simplified by not having to jump out of one app and into another to complete your 'Jobs To Be Done,' and it really feels like the internet is magic again…"

This was the initial promise of Siri, but it appears there are significant evolutions to that approach.

Maybe it will be a new app that aggregates the hard work of other apps sitting below it in this service layer. For example, Olo, a food-ordering service, has built up relationships with major chain restaurants around the U.S. (Disclosure: I've served as an advisor to their founder on unrelated issues). Their newest product, Dispatch, lets you get your food in McLean, Va. as easy as you do in the Lower East Side. A user orders, states they want their food for delivery, and Dispatch then bids it out automatically to whatever on-demand services sit in that ever-growing part of the transportation and logistics stack. It is a real-life "hunger game," with Postmates fighting Uber for your business. The user gets something they couldn't get before, in a frictionless way.



In an alternate version of this future, a concierge layer handles increasingly more and more of your on-demand life. The founders of Alfred have basically put the Mandarin Oriental concierge in your pocket (minus the $700-a-night buy-in). Using the "Hello Alfred" app, you can manage all the services you use in one place (shopping, dry cleaning, laundry, home cleaning, etc). You also get a weekly visit from your dedicated "Alfred" home manager, who puts everything away and leaves your home like a 5-star hotel. It's part tech platform, part service logistics company.

Done well, they require levels of accountability and service we have not yet experienced in today's on-demand economy.

When you are doing high-touch work for clients, there is a real cost associated with 1099 labor, both in terms of turnover and in terms of dedication. It pays to treat people properly. In fact only through paying staff properly are you able to charge enough to make the enterprise work. This may sound like quaint service-industry wisdom, but something the on-demand world appears to miss as a fragmented universe. Alfred actually treats their staff very well, with W-2 jobs and a culture that breeds loyalty.

This transition to a unified user experience will not only change these types of tactical services, but the future of hospitality as a whole. This new "magic layer" will evolve our relationship with the Internet and allow the best parts of humans to leverage the best parts of technology.

Can you imagine a world where you don't have to open a ton of apps?

Commentary by Colin Nagy, executive director at the Barbarian Group, a New York-based creative agency. Follow him on Twitter @CJN.