Uber, the seemingly unstoppable driver-on-demand service that's either changing the face of transportation or strangling the hard-working taxi industry to death, has opened up its first-ever public API. Uber says this fits right in with its core business of "converting bits to atoms."
In other words, welcome to the Internet of Taxis.
Just to get it out of the way: No, you can't request a ride directly from within a third party app, meaning that even with this API, you can't build a better Uber client. But you can add abutton that passes relevant information to the Uber app and opens it, making it super-easy for users to finish the transaction. That opens the door to a lot of business for Uber: If your app has a one-click Uber button, you're not going to take a competitor.
Given that every request will dispatch a real, breathing human to come get you, as Uber says in its blog entry, they're rolling that API endpoint out in a "more controlled fashion" with a small subset of preselected partners. This means my dream of an app that extends pizza delivery ranges by automatically hailing an Uber to meet the delivery person at the absolute furthest point in their range will still have to go unrealized.
Specifically, the API lets your app "pass a destination address to the Uber app, display pickup times, provide fare estimates, access trip history and more." For example, restaurant reservation service OpenTable now lets you book a ride to dinner from within the app.
The real takeaway here is that the API-driven "mashup" model development model leaves no business untouched. Uber's "bits to atoms" developer slogan is a little more Silicon Valley Newspeak than is perhaps necessary, but it points at an important concept: With products like Nest and like Fitbit, we've proven we're willing to use software to better control our homes and our bodies via our smartphones. This Uber API opens up options for controlling how we move around our world (or at least our major urban centers), in a very similar way.
But it's a little weird, because it's also an open API for essentially making another person come and do your bidding for what I think may be the first time ever. Taskrabbit's API was only open to select partners, as it turns out, to limit this very factor.
But in the end, this is the age-old Silicon Valley expansion from application to platform, an attempt to broaden Uber's reach in hearts and minds of users and developers both. The usual rules of treading with caution, especially with a first-time platform holder, apply.