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Today’s sharing economy has a cutting edge feel to it. It screams “innovation” and disruption. It seems futuristic. We’re living in a world where the most valuable media company — Facebook — produces no content; the world’s biggest taxi company — Uber — owns no vehicles; and the world’s most valuable hospitality company — Airbnb — owns no hotels.
Networks, it seems, are more valuable than the services they facilitate. And in some ways, this makes sense. They are enabling stranded assets like parked cars or empty beds to be economically productive. The networks are valuable precisely because they connect those with needs and those who can help fulfill them.
There’s reason to believe, though, that the so-called “sharing economy” is a fleeting moment in economic history. Digital giants and upstarts alike are realizing that networks can be fickle, while ownership of and control over the services they facilitate hold the key to a sustainable advantage and long-term profits.
Take transportation, for example. Uber is famous for being a giant, car-less taxi company, preferring to let its drivers supply the vehicles. In doing so, however, it has to give them a significant cut. What if it didn’t have to pay for drivers at all? That’s the promise of driverless cars.
As Uber founder and CEO Travis Kalanick told a tech conference in 2014, the service is more expensive than it should be, “because you’re not just paying for the car — you’re paying for the other dude in the car. When there’s no other dude in the car, the cost of taking an Uber anywhere becomes cheaper than owning a vehicle.”
What happens to car demand in a world where it’s cheaper to take an Uber than own a car? Sure, it might shrink a bit as cars are more heavily utilized and meet more driving needs. But the more interesting fact may be that the network suddenly owns all the cars.
Last year, Uber launched a lab in Pittsburgh to facilitate the development of autonomous car technology. While Uber may be a car-less taxi company today, it has its sights on owning all the cars in the future.
It’s no surprise, then, that GM recently announced a $500 million investment in Uber’s main rival Lyft, building a network-manufacturer partnership that could compete with the prospect of a vertically-integrated Uber. As NPR reported, “In the short-term, GM will rent cars to drivers. In the long-term, GM will build a self-driving fleet in which cars are owned by a company — not bought by individual consumers.” Meanwhile, Google plans on spinning off its driverless car unit into a standalone business later this year.
The “sharing economy” may eventually morph into the “platform owns everything” economy. Just consider what’s going on in the entertainment sector. Netflix, which has grown rapidly by connecting other people’s content to end users, is now focused on producing its own original content. In 2016, the company plans to produce 600 hours of original programming. Amazon is now producing original shows as well and doing so quite well. Amazon’s “Mozart in the Jungle” recently won two Golden Globe Awards. At one point in early January, the top five TV shows, according to ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, were produced by either Netflix or Amazon.
While Facebook has not announced plans to produce news (which is not particularly lucrative anyway), it is getting publishers to host their content with them. Much more consequential, however, is its approach to virtual reality. Facebook bought Oculus in 2014… and drum roll please… Oculus has a studio of its own — Oculus Story Studio — which is funding original content. If the future of visual media is in virtual reality, then Facebook will be one of its earliest producers.
Might Airbnb someday find itself wanting to scoop up some property of its own? It’s too soon to tell, but I wouldn’t be shocked if they did. One thing seems clear: we can’t assume that network owners will be content until they have control.
Vikram Mansharamani is a lecturer at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. He is also the author of “Boombustology: Spotting Financial Bubbles Before They Burst” and is a regular commentator in the financial and business media.
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