Square Wallet, the Apple Store, and Uber: Software Above the Level of a Single Device

This is the beginning of a great rewiring of every aspect of business processes and interactions.

Back in 2003, Dave Stutz, in his parting letter to Microsoft, wrote a prescient line about the future of technology: “Useful software written above the level of the single device will command high margins for a long time to come. Stop looking over your shoulder and invent something!” Software above the level of a single device! That line stuck with me, and has been a foundation of my thinking and writing ever since, helping to shape both The Open Source Paradigm Shift and What is Web 2.0?

But this line has never seemed more prescient than today, in the new wave of software that blends mobile devices in the hands of more than one person, big data back ends, and a profound re-imagination of services, business processes, and interfaces. Yesterday’s announcement that 7,000 Starbucks locations now accept Square Wallet drives home just how much technology is changing the game for business. It isn’t just the web, big data, or even mobile, it’s the combination of them all into new systems of interaction between companies and their customers.

If you’ve never experienced the magic of walking into a coffee shop, having the cashier glance down at their iPad-based Square Register to verify your face and payment credentials already provided by your phone’s automatic check-in, and buying your coffee simply by confirming your name, you haven’t yet tasted the future.

Square Wallet and Square Register aren’t just mobile applications, they are a profound rethinking of the entire business process of buying something at a retail location. They combine not just one but two mobile applications, a cloud-based data backend with payment information, identity, and perhaps even your purchase preferences at a merchant you frequent, location-based check-in, and more, all woven into a seamless experience. Software above the level of a single device. Retail will never be the same again.

The Apple Store has got a lot of the same magic. Gone is the cash register. Clerks instead wander the store, offering advice, and, when you’re ready to buy, they hand you your product, and offer to email you your receipt. Your name and credit card are already on file. You and the sales clerk are already part of the system. Software above the level of a single device.

Or consider Uber. You look on your phone. The nearest car is three minutes away. You choose the car and driver you want – perhaps based on proximity, but perhaps on the basis of user ratings of the driver. When the driver is outside, you receive a text message. When you arrive at your destination, you simply thank the driver and step out. Payment information is already on file. Software above the level of a single device. Magic.

This is only the beginning of a great rewiring of every aspect of business processes and interactions. The web was never just about content, but always about building the infrastructure for a kind of internet operating system. The first apps on that operating system were thinly upgraded versions of what went before, but the true native apps are starting to arrive. Software above the level of a single device. Magic.

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  • http://twitter.com/aallan Alasdair Allan

    One of the interesting things I see coming out of this sea change in the way payment technology works is the way it’s going to widen the gap far more between the have and have-nots. If everyone pays with cash, everyone is equal. But now the haves are obvious, you can’t go into a store with a poor credit rating and be the same as everyone else. This was already present to some degree, try checking into a hotel without a credit card, but is going to become more prevalent with the new technology, especially things like Square Register where you’re explicitly de-anonymised…

    • http://radar.oreilly.com timoreilly

      That’s an important and thought-provoking point, Alasdair. A world without cash simplifies user experience, but creates many new issues, both the credit-divide issue you highlight here, but also privacy.

      • Faisal

        Just goes to show how the way businesses operate and compete is going to change. It won’t be enough to just innovate a piece of hardware or software. To be truely successful, companies will have to think innovations through and be able to either create or be parts of ecosystem within which an innovation can realize its full potential.

        For example, in the case of the Square registers, having the right data security and privacy is critical for the success of the Square itself. Since there are so many aspects of a business process which within themselves are highly complex and sophisticated, creating right partnerships, co-opetition etc will be of ever-growing importance in this new paradigm.

  • Abovecar

    Nice article! Unfortunately for Uber, life isn’t all that simple with threats of being shut down in various cities. The legacy ride services don’t play nice that’s for sure. Here is Uber’s letter to Chicago that may be closed to their Black Car service: http://blog.uber.com/2012/11/01/uberchilove/

    • http://radar.oreilly.com timoreilly

      Just because Napster was shut down didn’t mean that the future of music wasn’t online….

      Whether Uber succeeds or not, we can look forward to hailing cabs on our phones with a system much like it.

  • @7hwrd

    I had the pleasure of this experience at Soukup’s Hardware in Glen Ellyn, IL, in the early ’80s. The family who owned and ran it knew their customers. I took my purchases to the counter, and they asked if I wanted to put the charges on my account. It wasn’t exactly a coffee shop, though. I hope it works out for Starbucks, but I really liked the stability at Soukup’s – it engendered trust.

    • http://radar.oreilly.com timoreilly

      What a great observation! Local businesses used to do this the human way, without technology.

  • http://fudge.org/ Jay Cuthrell

    Or perhaps this is the dismantling of business process (as usual) and the emergence of business models as the norm since the models are so singularly focused around the customer side experience.

  • http://basissap.com martin_english

    A point that gets lost in all the tech hype is that these use cases work because both the owner of the business and the service employee give a damn (If the barista is too busy playing angry birds to look at their Square register app, that place won’t get my money !!)
    I remember returning to my local (the Paekakariki Hotel) after 18 months absence overseas, sometime back in the 80′s. My beer was on the counter, open, before I got to the bar. Debbo didn’t need a computer for that.

    • http://radar.oreilly.com timoreilly

      Yes, fantastic observation.

  • http://twitter.com/skitten Ciaran

    So I had a lot to say about this but then disqus shat on it and now I don’t care.

  • Jim Stogdill

    I think there’s another important thread running through your examples. Design.

    Square’s design is amazing. I sit at my local coffee shop and I listen to people talking about it with almost a sense of wonder. It’s crazy. It’s a payment system and it is the most talked about thing in the place. I haven’t hear people enthusing similarly about Google Wallet or all of the other options like it.

    With software above the level of a single device comes the complexity of presenting an easy to grasp model of what the software is doing, and how to interact with it, across that whole device ecosystem. The examples you give aren’t just using networks to offer services that wouldn’t be possible before, they are doing it in a way that is intuitive and delightful.

  • poeddroiduser

    Where is Commerce Weekly?

    • http://radar.oreilly.com/ Mac Slocum

      Commerce Weekly will return next week.

  • Freedown

    for allways tecnologi .for ever the service society. for some one intelihence colective for other comunity managment