It’s all about controlling the Interface

It’s been 18 months since I wrote about interface control. And o, what 18 months those have been!

Facebook tried to become the primary mobile interface, but failed (so far). Apple tried to bump Google off its interface, but failed. Twitter tried to decimate its own ecosystem (but apparently failed), while fighting an interface battle with Facebook. And Instagram. And Tumblr. Facebook fought with Yandex. Microsoft, with its Windows dominance on the wane, decided to compete with the hardware manufacturers who market it. And Zynga realized the (inter)force was not with it. Live by the interface, die by the interface.

Here are 10 things we learned about the interface economy over that period.

It’s a battle of giants

The Digital 5 are battling it out: Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook (perhaps we should call them the Phygital 5, since four of them now play in both the physical and digital realms, and the fifth – Facebook – is grappling to define its physical manifestation). Others will join the fray: Samsung? IBM? eBay? Walmart? Twitter? While others will be left behind (Sony, Yahoo, Nokia, Blackberry…). Only the giants are willing and able to pay considerable sums to build a moat around their interface, or to keep others from strengthening theirs (see FB/Instagram, Google/Waze)

Facebook isn’t always Home

I believe with Home Facebook struck not only too early, but also arrogantly. Sure, phones should be built around people rather than apps. But Facebook is not all there is to people. To see how a phone can be built around people, Facebook should look to platforms like this.

…nor should it be

Those who rely on Facebook as their home – i.e., give up their interface to Facebook – do so at their peril. That seemingly attractive trade-off between control and reach only works for a rare few; for all the others it is a risky trade indeed: they might get reach, but it will not guarantee access. Just ask Zynga, BranchOut, Viddy, and SocialCam.

…but it should not be underestimated

And that’s an understatement. Facebook is still a threat to Google in search (although Facebook search isn’t solved just yet). The App Center allows it to collect invaluable app data, compensating somewhat for its lack of OS. And Instagram has grown like bonkers since the acquisition.

Owning the OS is not enough

As does owning the screen. Why is it not enough? Because, for example, you need a good product.

Apple of all companies should know this, but it did not execute on it. The opposite is true: over time, it had neglected its default iOS apps. Google, on the other hand, invested in its own apps for Apple’s software. The result was nigh inevitable: Apple’s Maps were an embarrassment, while Google’s Maps app was an instant success. And, ironically, with the YouTube app Apple seems to have done Google a favour.

There are other ways to compensate if you don’t own the OS. One of them is to understand the ways users discover content (including apps), which is Facebook App Center‘s cornerstone; another is to understand their usage patterns and predict what content they would need (ergo, Google Now).

Developers are important. Until they aren’t

It really depends on where a burgeoning interface is in its life cycle. At the beginning developers are its lifeblood; they’re indispensable force multipliers. But slowly, as a platform gains strength, the developers are warned to stay away from duplicating “core functions” of the platform and are advised to find other ways of adding value to it. Twitter’s path is a classic example (see Twitter clients, photos, stocks etc.).

For physical brands, a software layer extends the interface

As consumers turn more and more into mobile mavens, physical brands are at risk of losing their formerly-safe interfaces. When consumers can showroom at will, a retailer’s interface with consumers – while physically tangible – becomes almost useless transaction-wise, and consumer goods become commoditized.

To preserve the interface, retailers and manufacturers need to transform its nature by developing a software layer on top of the physical one, wherein consumers can find the value they seek (be it product information, service, social value, price etc.). Retailers can also leverage the physical interface by focusing on the added value inherent in human interactions, but that’s a whole other matter…

…so they’re experimenting

With contests. And hackathons. And APIs (also this). And partnerships. And accelerators.

Most still don’t get it. But some might go the distance.

The shape of the generic Interface ecosystem is gradually forming

Interface ecosystems revolve around Interface platforms – e.g.,Facebook in social and Google in search. Many large ecosystems are being fought over.

Platforms have numerous piggy-backers: planets orbiting the platform-suns. They can circle their sun for a while, but as we’ve seen, they are sometimes consumed by it.

Any ecosystem will have also-rans: losers of the big battle, winners in specific geographic regions, nibbling challengers.

In some ecosystems you’ll have data players. Their proprietary data will be important even for the platform giants; sometimes they can even turn into satellite platforms. Echo Nest is a great example of this unique creature.

Then you have the API players. They are the “gauge bosons” of the ecosystem, the critical mediators between ecosystem members. Twillio and Aviary are brilliant examples. Here’s to Twillio!

Many verticals are still in land grab mode

Battle cries are still heard in many places, with players fighting over this- or that-graph. It’s about the data – who collects, who controls it. Viva la interface!

Here are examples of some of the most intriguing battles:

  • Who will dominate the music interface? Apple? Google? Spotify? Deezer?
  • Has Google won the location battle? Can Foursquare ever become a platform, or will it be a data player?
  • Will messaging stay a divided arena? What will become of WhatsApp? Will small upstarts learn not to mess with Facebook?
  • Can an ecosystem be more jumbled than payments? Apple, Google, Amazon, eBay/PayPal, credit card companies, mobile operators, Intuit, Square, other startups too numerous to mention… Who will come out the victor?
  • What can we learn about the education ecosystem? Will academic institutions gain the higher ground, or will MOOCs educate us all? Will LMS players become true platforms?
  • And how about health? What will healthcare giants do? Can Practice Fusion be part of the cure? Will RunKeeper be successful in building a health-graph? And what will become of data players like 23andMe?