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The importance of interfaces and the war for dominance of our beloved screens.
Welcome to People vs Algorithms #72.
I look for patterns in media, business and culture. My POV is informed by 30 years of leadership in media and advertising businesses.
Sometimes it’s nice to read in the browser.
Muskrats like other muskrats. Or I presume they do. At least that’s what the song “Muskrat Love” suggests. I am starting here because Muskrat Love was just playing on my fav summer SiriusXM station “The Bridge”, “the softer side of classic and contemporary rock.” The song is a sublime soft rock celebration of the unpretentious love between Muskrat Sam and Muskrat Susie. As further validation for the theory that absolutely anything can be a lede should you be enterprising enough, let’s use these two little critters as a dubious metaphor for interface. Muskrat Sam and Muskrat Susie belong together, floating like the heavens above, an so on. I don’t know… I just really love this song. Let’s go with it.
What I really want to talk about is interfaces, because our world is all about them now.
You know what an interface is because you are surrounded by them. They are your starting point. Your command center. A dashboard for measurement and feedback. Imagine a horizontal continuum. Interfaces sit at one end. The set up, discovery and control part of your life. The actual experience of whatever that interface controls sits at the other end.
Futurist Kevin Kelly refers to the technical universe as the “Technium”. According to Kelly, the Technium is more than just the sum of all the world's technology; it's a complex system of culture, systems, and machinery that has its own dynamics and behaviors. However you want to think about our modern technical ecosystem, it defines our world and the interface is central.
We have always had interfaces, but mostly the hardware interface kind. A cave person’s club was an interface to dinner. Pen, ink and paper were interfaces to communication. Light switches, an interface to mood and basic navigation. Our TV remote interface was our gateway to entertainment. Now interfaces are mostly software. Suddenly most everything is our lives is controlled by them.
Let’s list a few:
Google is an interface to content, shopping and communication.
E-commerce is a the new interface to stuff.
Maps and nav are our interfaces to getting everywhere.
TikTok is an interface to billions of people expressing themselves with video.
Facebook is a communication interface to people you mostly don’t want to communicate with.
Netflix is an interface to a catalog of entertainment.
Apple and Spotify are the new interfaces to radio.
OpenAI is becoming an interface to all kinds of knowledge.
Your phone is a meta interface to all of these things and more.
Your car is slowly becoming an interface like your phone.
Your TV wants to be a better interface to all entertainment, advertising and shopping.
Modern business history is really a story of interface companies exploiting interface dominance. Think about all of the dominant tech leaders. All control in interface to valuable economic systems supported media, commerce or communication. Importantly, in a world of abundance, value accrues to those that help you find your way through the maelstrom. When there are tons of downstream participants in a system, interfaces capture much of the value.
Winning at interfaces requires a few things. First you have to establish a lead interface position by being first or best or otherwise privileged at controlling a starting point. Google did this with search. Facebook did it with the social graph. Cars companies sold you a complete machine so they controlled your transportation interface, but this interface is increasingly up for grabs as it becomes more than just a control system for your vehicle. Pre-internet, cable providers controlled your access to entertainment and enjoyed valuable interface control. Now they just own the pipes because they were unable to leverage the dominance of a controlled interface paradigm into dominance of a digital consumer-driven abundance paradigm.
In addition to finding an initial leverage point, interface control requires: 1) a design and technical talent and capability of corralling a whole bunch of information, data and interactive controls in one understandable and usable screen; 2) an ability to monetize that interface position for yourself and others in the ecosystem; 3) steady fortification of the ecosystem levers by stepping closer to the consumer by owning an operating system (IOS, Adroid, CarPlay), the hardware (the phone, car or chip) or unique data sets and the network effects that support them (LinkedIn); 4) the ability to balance the needs of the constituents in the interface ecosystem.
But monetization is the lynch pin. If you do not control the economics of the interface, someone will take leadership away from you.
Like in all things where money and power are involved, people will abuse interface positions to extract more value or control from the people that use them. People call these interface abuses “dark patterns.” Dark patterns are design strategies used in websites and application interfaces that manipulate users into doing things they might not want to do. They're called "dark" because they often take advantage of users' cognitive biases or lack of attention to detail to achieve business objectives, such as increasing sign-ups, selling products, or preventing users from unsubscribing or deleting accounts. Examples here include design misdirection, intentional cancellation friction, hidden costs, bait and switch, negative billing options, etc. One might even describe native advertising as the internets most pervasive dark pattern.
Amazon is currently being sued by the FTC for allegedly employing dark patterns to get more customers to buy Prime, a suit that seems laughable next to what many in the media business have historically done to curb subscriber churn.
When you start to see the world as interface, you will quickly observe wars for interface dominance heating up on several fronts. Here are a few:
Car wars: Increasingly cars are just another interface point for navigation, communication, entertainment and commerce. You, the user, want the familiarity and sophistication of your phone to dominate here. Car makers are stuck between learning the interface game and giving it up to people that are much better at it like Apple and Google. Most, with the exception of Tesla, suck at it. And your mobile OS has the gravity of holding all your apps and data and stuff. As a result, almost all cars now support one or the other dominant car extensions of mobile operating systems. 48% of buyers say the ability to run a familiar OS is their car is key to the purchase decision. Owning the car interface, particularly as self driving evolves, is hugely valuable. The car is a front line of a new interface war.
TV wars: Cable providers used to own this interface. Like cars, Apple and Android are trying own it next. Scaled streamers own a big chunk of the interface but their ownership is limited by their catalog. Like the car companies, the TV makers (Samsung, LG) are watching hardware margins evaporate and want to own the interface to take some of the economics back. They like FAST channels. They also suck at making interface so that is not great for people. The TV is a front line for an emerging interface war.
Search wars: OpenAI and Bing want a bigger piece of the internet “start” interface. This is obviously a golden goose interface and Google is good at making the goose lay golden eggs. Search / chat is a very important front line for an emerging interface war. To win this war you have to be able to churn boat loads of money out of the system.
Media wars: Search and social aggregation platforms make good interface that spans the universe of media providers. This sophistication and consistency tends to make consumers happy. As a result, they now have established an enviable controlling interface position. This, of course, has a profound impact on how media is discovered, packaged and monetized. And, AI is the next forbidding chapter in the history of aggregation where media has gotten the short end of the stick.
The Canadian government, like the Australians before, want the platforms to share the interface riches with media. Google has said, pound sand, Canada. This kind of revenue sharing kumbaya worked much better in the scarcity media world. A compromise of some sort will be reached, but it will not fix the much bigger underlying monetization problems of media. Platforms continue to be a front line for a media interface war.
Radio wars: Podcasting interfaces, predominantly Spotify and Apple, are front lines for a new radio interface war.
A couple of points here. Few companies are really good at interface. Even fewer are good at interface plus hardware. Those that are will continue to find outsize advantages in the interface wars. Consumers will arbitrate, and have become accustomed to a sophistication dictated by a mobile phone ecosystem from which all others will be measured. People will have less and less patience for the junky points of contact that control our worlds, outside of phones.
As a business leader you are likely subject to the rules of someone else’s interface. Ask yourself, which are the most important to your success? How can you find advantage here? Can you create an interface, even if of secondary importance, that earns loyalty and premiums?
Behind every modern business problem is an interface strategy.
Let’s end with a little interface inspiration from Muskrat Sam and Susie…
And they whirl and they twirl and they tango
Singin' and jinglin' a jangle
Floatin' like the heavens above
Looks like muskrat love
Have a restful 4th of July…/ Troy
(Note: We are back. The podcast is out tomorrow. We talk interface, dark patterns and AI eating itself plus a surprisingly useful toaster feature.)
Sue starts to giggle
Captain & Tennille got all of the love for this banger, originally written and recorded by Willis Alan Ramsey. The former features the awesome giggling-synth-mating sounds. But it was the version by America that pulls at my heart. Listen below.
"Muskrat Love" is a soft rock song written by Willis Alan Ramsey. The song depicts a romantic liaison between two anthropomorphic muskrats named Susie and Sam. It was first recorded in 1972 by Ramsey for his sole album release Willis Alan Ramsey. The song was originally titled "Muskrat Candlelight" referencing the song's opening lyric.
A 1973 cover version by the folk/rock band America—retitled "Muskrat Love" for the lyrics that close the chorus—was a minor hit reaching number 67 on the *Billboard* Hot 100 chart. In 1976, a cover by pop music duo Captain & Tennille resulted in the song's highest profile, peaking at number four on the Hot 100 chart. It also reached number two on the Cash Box chart, which ranked it as the 30th biggest hit of 1976.