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Uber for Everything

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One of the technology industry’s big bets is that once a company is good at transporting one thing, it should be able to do the same for anything.

Companies including Uber and Instacart are starting to branch out from one area — getting people or groceries to their destination — into delivering restaurant food, prescription drugs, home goods, pet food and convenience store items. In that vein, Uber this week bought Drizly, which delivers from liquor stores.

You can imagine the potential if courier services delivered almost anything under the sun. But will it work, and is it a good thing?

It’s impossible to predict whether one-stop delivery behemoths will pan out or what the ripple effects might be — both helpful and harmful. But we should pay attention to these companies’ moves and think critically about the stakes for small businesses, our wallets, our communities and the U.S. work force.

First, the promise of Uber for everything, and then some of the complications.

This could be awesome. Couriers could have more work if they can pick up passengers, deliver burritos and drop off cases of beer. Selling more types of stuff could reverse losses at app-based companies like Uber and DoorDash. And it’s handy for people who like shopping from their sofas. Win-win-win.

It could be good for local businesses and our communities, too. Imagine if a local toy shop or grocery store could more easily serve both the people shopping in person and those nearby who prefer delivery. Our favorite businesses could have a second life without going broke competing against Amazon or shipping orders hundreds of miles by mail.

My colleague Kate Conger told me that the pandemic has shown that many of us are eager for home delivery of everything, and that has made more tech industry watchers believe that app-based companies can successfully become one-stop delivery machines.

It’s also possible that the Uber model for anything won’t work out, or that if it does it will entrench the worst aspects of delivery-by-app companies.

For all Uber’s talk about its beautiful dual businesses in restaurant food delivery and moving people, they are wildly different. The customers might overlap, but signing up restaurants and keeping them feeling satisfied is a whole different game than moving people around.

Plus, each new type of delivered goods — groceries, convenience store items, home improvement stuff and booze — have different operations and logistics. Can one generalist be good at them all?

Also worth mentioning: Many restaurants have said that app-based delivery services have been a bad bargain. Will businesses in other industries feel the same?

If one-stop delivery companies aren’t viable, it could hurt shoppers that have relied on them, businesses that have bet their futures on them — and especially the workers who are lowest in the gig-economy hierarchy.

If you hang around Silicon Valley long enough, you’ll probably hear a line stolen from Ernest Hemingway that change often happens gradually and then suddenly. One order of Cheetos and beer at a time, we and app companies may be remaking our habits, communities and the labor force.

In 2015, my colleague Dai Wakabayashi reported for The Wall Street Journal that Apple was working on an electric vehicle. And today, the company may still be at least half a decade away from its cars hitting the roads.

I’m excited about the possibility of an Apple car. More electric cars, yes! But Apple’s history shows that it’s not easy being a car newcomer. And Apple may have unique disadvantages that make its brand of car no sure thing.

The latest news is that the maker of Hyundai and Kia cars is negotiating to eventually make Apple vehicles at a Kia factory in Georgia, CNBC reported on Wednesday. Teaming up with an experienced car manufacturer is probably necessary.

Apple has been here before, however. About five years ago, the company worked on car engineering with Magna International in Canada. That didn’t go anywhere, because Apple’s car project has been a shambles.

The company has repeatedly staffed up its car initiative, changed its mind about its strategy and fired a bunch of people. Apple went back and forth, too, on whether to try for fully driverless cars, and whether it should create the car or just design the technology for it. Driverless technology is apparently back on.

Never count Apple out. But I wonder if the company’s dithering reflects underlying and unfixable problems. And Apple has a cultural disadvantage here. Steve Jobs sprung the iPhone on a world surprised by it, but the company’s predilection for secrecy and delight doesn’t — or shouldn’t — apply to driverless cars.

A driverless car has to be rigorously tested on public roads and win the confidence of regulators and the public. Apple has to clue in an army of allies on its product road map — something it doesn’t do to the same extent with its gadget partners. (Apple has conducted driverless car road tests, but far less than others have.)

I hope it works. But G.M.’s whole fleet might be electric before Apple gets a single car off the factory floor.