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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