Apps bring small town service to the big city

If you visit the Western world only now and then, residing outside it, the evolutionary leaps of technological change are inevitably startling. But sometimes, oddly, what is most new can feel quite old.

I went to a CVS drugstore in Chicago and they had a big sign touting their app for curbside pickup — now you don’t even need to leave your car to snap up your Sominex!

But in the Middle East, where I live, this is totally normal, though with a twist (or in my city’s local usage: same same but different). In the Middle East they have had free curbside pickup for years. The way it works is your car is the cellphone and your horn is the app. You honk, a guy from the baqala (corner store) runs out, takes your order and your dirhams, and a few minutes later brings back your items and your change.

On second thought maybe the guy is the app and the horn is your username and password.

This system is way more user-friendly than some fiddly app, though admittedly more noisy.

In a similar vein, just the other day Walmart said it would be running a test at three of its US stores in which employees would, while on their drive home, drop off items that customers had ordered online. Now that is totally old school, and not so different from the days when a boy on a bicycle would bring your groceries around.

Part of the power of technology is that it can do at a mass urban scale what used to be normal at a village scale, but was largely lost in the interim between the two eras. Technology encodes habit and renders it replicable.

In 10 or 20 years the Middle East will no doubt have made this shift. Already some of its tech startups are being snapped up, and online retail is growing in presence. More and more I see trucks on the streets from, the Dubai online retailer that Amazon bought in March for an unspecified price (but a rival bid had come in at US$800 million).

This is a test