One little-known fact about Silicon Valley darlings Uber and Airbnb (and many others) for lay folks is how little of the underlying tech platform they directly control, and how much is really hacked together cleverly using public APIs (application programme interface).
Uber uses Google Maps, Twilio (SMS notifications), SendGrid (e-mails), and Braintree (payments) to make the magic happen. Airbnb, too, uses SendGrid, Twilio, and Braintree.
Hacking (or cobbling) together the tech stack using these APIs helps them save considerably on engineering talent and get to market faster.
Uber’s APIs are also leveraged in turn by other digital businesses. Uber allows itself to be embedded into the OpenTable and United Airlines apps. The OpenTable app has a “Ride With Uber” feature, making it easy to book an Uber ride with a single click within the OpenTable app. This again appears on the screen when paying your check using the OpenTable app.
How might this be relevant for media companies?
Let’s look at media company operations as a continuum of (content) creation — discovery/marketing to distribution/consumption. Certainly media companies could leverage APIs such as that of Google Maps, Facebook Trends, etc., in originating content, and many do.
If a publisher allows others to use its APIs — such as The New York Times, which allows other companies to access 14 different APIs, including historical stories, top stories, and most popular stories — then it can help in enhancing discoverability.
However, is there a benefit for enhancing content distribution via APIs?
I think so. Let us take a few examples:
- Can Medium use Lyft/Uber API data to send/surface an article long enough to be consumed during the ride? Medium already has information on the amount of time it takes to finish a story. It is then a matter of matching this with the estimated time to arrival using Google Maps and Uber APIs.
- Can Starbucks offer you a “mystery story” selected from single-story seller 1pass.me, in lieu of the change, when you are settling your Starbucks bill?
- Can Fortune send you the latest story on a company, or something else relevant, when you start following a company on LinkedIn?
- Can Airbnb surface an offer from Lonely Planet for a guidebook to the city you have booked a house in?
These are just a few of the hundreds of ideas possible. I call this API-driven media delivery. It is really the publishing equivalent of an Uber app within OpenTable.
Another alternate way to look at this is as the content equivalent of Google AdSense. Just as Google is able to surface relevant ads when you search, publishers are able to surface relevant content thanks to the context generated by apps.
In his book The Search, John Battelle referred to Google as a master database of intentions, thanks to what people entered into the search box.
In the mobile world, there is no single counterpart to the search box. Rather, search is fragmented across several apps. It is through interactions within the apps themselves that we can determine intentions. Hence the need for content owners to tightly marry their APIs with that of the leading app owners.
Thanks to this tight coupling, media owners can surface content within the right context. This can enable publishers to charge a higher price, or drive higher engagement for their content.
Context-specific consumption of media isn’t entirely new. Historically, we had in-flight magazines, which are nothing but content served in a specific context. Instead of APIs, you have lock-ins, engendered by the fact that you are captive on a three- or six-hour flight.
Another relevant example is transit freesheets such as Metro and 20 Minutes, typically consumed during subway rides. Another interesting, though niche, example would be that of Chipotle putting original content on its cups.
It is interesting that Uber has launched an actual magazine called Arriving Now. Airbnb has a similar one called Pineapple. This seems strangely retro. I am reminded of Benedict Evans’ recent post where he cites the example of Times Digest, which he says “is the future as imagined in 1990.” Arriving Now from Uber seems akin to that somehow.
For further reading:
- This pair of articles by Bala Iyer and Mohan Subramaniam is worth a read to understand how organisations can leverage APIs:
- This article by venture capitalist Gary Little in Fortune is good for a perspective on how Uber stitches together APIs to create a compelling friction-free experience: