The biggest companies on the Internet are trying to turn the apps on your smartphone into a network they own. Facebook announced a host of new services that would allow the social network to become the central nervous system connecting your apps together, and now Google has come up with its own take on the idea.
A major new feature in Google's Maps update, released yesterday, is Uber integration. If you live in a city that Uber supports, you may now compare your ride through that service with transit and walking directions right within Google Maps. And if you choose the Uber option, you’ll jump into the Uber app with just one click.
It may not sound like much. After all, Google already allows many of its apps to talk to one another. (It's Google's existing network of interlinked apps, in fact, that Facebook is trying to catch up to.) Even on an iPhone, it's entirely possible to surf from Google app to Google app, without ever touching a menu screen. Google has built itself a mini-ecosystem of apps on Apple's platform, eating iOS from the inside.
What makes the Uber integration unique is that Uber is not a Google app. It's an outside app that Google has invested in through its Google Ventures arm. Google could just be trying to give a leg up to one of its investments here, but in light of Facebook's attempts to link third-party apps into a sort of ad hoc network living inside everyone's smartphone, it feels like more is going on. Uber integration feels like the first step in Google allowing third-party apps to directly integrate with its own app library.
For third-party devs, this is an attractive possibility as well. The way Google integrated Uber into Maps solves another problem: How do you keep the clarity of an app's purpose to do just a few things well when you are constantly feeling pressure to add new features? Google's solution is to use other apps installed on a device as pins in a lock. In the proper configuration, they will trigger the tumblers and unlock new features.
The key here is context. In the new Google Maps, you only get Uber integration if you have the Uber app installed. If you don't? You never see the feature. Like Lego bricks, it's two different apps snapping together to form something better. The only question is, will Google make it easy for other apps to snap on too?