Consumer Apps Jump the Shark

February 6, 2016, 1:00 PM UTC
Sharks floating in clouds
John Lund/ Getty Images/ Blend Images

For the past few months, anytime I scroll through my Facebook feed, I’ve been rewarded with a bounty of new tools and services being pitched to me to make my life easier. There’s Homepolish, the Uber of home decorating that will send a real, licensed interior decorator to my house for the fraction of the price of a traditional professional. Ever since I clicked on the company’s website, I’ve been getting bombarded with ads for a number of Homepolish competitors. Zeel provides same-day, in-home massages on demand for the same price or slightly less than I’d pay visiting a spa. The other day an ad for Parachutes appeared for the first time, a new startup that will ship high-end, low-priced bedding to my door, then let me sleep on it for 30 days before committing to buying it.

These services join a litany of others. There are six or seven different personal styling startups, and an entire cottage industry of home-delivery meal kit startups. Casper sells high-quality mattresses for less than $1000, lets you sleep on it for 100 nights, and will pick it up and refund your money if you don’t like it. Washio will pick up, wash and deliver my laundry; Shyp will pick up and mail my packages; Taskrabbit and Postmates will do almost any errand I want them to. Hello Alfred will give me my own personal butler for the low weekly price of $25.

Many of these services are derivations of Uber, the ride-sharing juggernaut and the granddaddy of on-demand anything. With Uber, I can now get a chauffeured ride to work for around $20. And yet even from its perch at the top of the on-demand ecosystem, Uber is sweetening the pot, too: a few weeks ago it announced a surprise one-day reduction of prices in many cities, mine included, by 15%.

The list goes on and on, but in short, it’s never, ever been a better time to be an upper-middle-class consumer of technology products and services. Downton Abbey had footmen and bells that rang straight to the servants’ quarters; today, we have on-demand apps and generous shipping policies.

But lately it seems to be jumping the shark. Valet Anywhere will find you and park your car for you. Dufl will pack and ship your bags for you. Zingy, Barkpost, Wag! and FetchPetCare all offer on-demand dog-walking. Over the holidays, I received a breathless pitch for Thirstie, an app billed as a “discovery-to-delivery platform that allows you to stock up on last-minute wine, beer and spirits under an hour.” (Lest you think Thirstie has cornered its market, it’s locked in a Coke-Pepsi-style battle with its arch rival, Saucey.)

Don’t get me wrong. I’m an avowed user of many of these affordable new tools. In my household, we have a TaskRabbit or two come to help with small repairs or office tasks at least once a week. In a pinch, I use Uber to get to work. I employ a virtual assistant I first discovered through the recently-folded-then-acquired Zirtual and with whom I now work independently, who has taken a tremendous load off my plate. Three nights a week my beau and I sit down to a different sophisticated dinner we made ourselves—for the low price of $10 a plate—thanks to Blue Apron. These services, while perhaps not necessary, have quite nicely enhanced my life.

But this is all coming at a time when there are so many problems facing the world—and when R&D spending at big industrial giants is under serious pressure, as my colleague Chris Matthews has noted. Analysts lamented the merger of Dow Chemical (DOW) and DuPont (DD), noting it signified cost-cutting, a capitulation to the quarterly pressures of Wall Street, and even the “shrinking of American ambition.”

In response to this, many hold higher hopes than ever for the ability of Silicon Valley and the technology sector to put its brightest minds and abundance of resources to work on important, world-improving technologies and innovations. But is Silicon Valley reaching its fullest potential if more and more of its resources are going toward delivering a massage therapist to my door?

Why not shift some of this funding and problem-solving horsepower toward tools that can begin to tackle some of the world’s most vexing problems? How about an emergency app for on-demand help for victims of domestic abuse? A tool to dispatch low-rate financial counselors to help recent graduates manage their epic loads of student debt? An app that facilitates instant delivery of Naloxone to victims of heroin overdoses? Why not just focus on curing cancer (no app needed)?

I know there are billions of dollars already pursuing these big and important causes. Some of the most well-funded sectors in tech right now are life sciences, biotech and medicine. (I am girding myself for a coming wave of PR pitches from the startups in these areas). And the same recent tech boom that gave us Washio has also given us game-changing advancements in enterprise software, cloud storage and computer science. It may well be that the consumer tools I’m talking about —the fun, user-friendly services with instant life-improving bells and whistles—are simply low-hanging fruit for the media to write about and therefore get more attention. (Some of them, too, are de-bloating industries in need of it: take Uber with taxis, or on a smaller scale, Parachutes is trying to eliminate both the high-priced middleman and the opacity of misleading thread-count marketing in the bedding business.)

But these kinds of companies may also be easier to start. One of the things that makes entrepreneurship so enticing right now is that the tools to start a consumer-facing web service or app are free and online. And the venture capital bubble of the past several years has meant that many of these things get funding—along with eager, well-paid PR firms to help breathlessly spread the word—at the drop of a hat.

But things seem to be getting a little bit out of control. Just because you can build it doesn’t always mean that you should.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to turn my attention to an app I recently stumbled upon that will help me discover whether or not I can think like Winston Churchill.

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