uber economy?

Also an official taxi isn't necessarily a safe place (although Robert de Niro killed outside of it only)

Also an official taxi isn’t necessarily a safe place (although Robert de Niro only killed outside of it)

The news are full of stories about start ups in the “sharing economy”.  Depending on the source, they are praising or devastating. These services are fascinating (to me) because they build heavily on a digital and often even mobile infrastructure – while not invented today, this infrastructure is still quite new and thus makes concepts and business ideas possible that no one had thought about before. And they promise to tap into unused potentials of underused cars, un(der)employed people, or temporarily free flats.

cheaper by cheating? case uber

For many customers (users?) the main reason is: they are cheaper than comparable existing services. I wonder how they can do it.

If we think of an ideal market, excessive profits won’t last long because a competitor quickly offers the same service cheaper. If such a market is mature, prices have leveled in. Competitiors therefore try to offer something different, more valuable, in order to be able to ask higher prices (differentiation) or we see new, so called disruptive ideas that do the same thing better, more efficient, etc.
(note: the taxi market is not such an ideal market because you also need a taxi concession, which is limited and regulated. Whether this is useful is a different story, I think it isn’t important for my argument).

When we look at uber(Pop), they are often cheaper. So differentiation doesn’t seem to be their main point: The service they offer from the client perspective is pretty much the same: they bring people from A to B. They use dynamic pricing which can be good and bad for the passenger, depending on demand.

Is their business model disruptive then? They broker rides between passengers and drivers – but that’s common praxis with taxis already. The drivers are self-employed with all the benefits and risks – true for both. They have a nice app but that is available for taxis, too (2008 already!). They tap into a different pool of drivers: anyone! and cars: anyone’s car.

But is that a disruptive advantage? You need enough drivers so that you can serve your customers quickly. Driving for uber must be so profitable that drivers do it professionally and prefer it over driving a taxi. Or that they spend the remaining time besides aonther job transporting other people – not giving s.o. a lift on a way you have to go anyways, but making the tour just for the transport. uber also has a brokerage fee that the company itself lives on. This leaves little room for a cheaper price. Maybe they have a tremendously more efficient system to broker and schedule rides.

My suspicion is that they often circumvent regulations. A usual taxi has to go to inspection once a year. uber cars being private cars only once every two years (in Germany). A usual taxi driver needs a licence that allows transportation of people, they need to renew it every 5 years, they need a special insurance – uber drivers don’t need any of that (uber says it has an insurance in place but doesn’t release any proof of it). All of these regulations seem to be pretty reasonable considering that traffic is dangerous and you are in the driver’s hands as a passenger.

As far as I can see, uber is a little disruptive but also heavily cheating.
(if you have some more business knowledge, I welcome your comments to get this clearer for me!)


Tapping into unused resources: case airbnb

The uber considerations should be true for other services as well, such as Helpling: cheating on regulations, on customer expectations helps lower the price.

The case of airbnb is a little different: it’s a flat you have anyways, like the lift you give someone when ride sharing to a destination you go to yourself. To me, this model seems much more enabled by communication technology. Without it, tourists would just not be able to find that room that is empty over the weekend, at least it would be far too much effort. It also scales to a certain extent: everyone can do it for mutual profit (and some profit for airbnb) and it’s not competing for your time with a job.

The idea loses some of its shine because of its success: when people start renting regular apartments only to sublet them via airbnb, we are back in normal holiday apartment business (and even aggravate the problem of raising rents in crowded places).


Sharing vs helping

“Sharing economy” sounds a little too altruistic for all of these services, at least if we consider the connotation of “giving” in “sharing”. Most of these services are based on profit not just refunding expenses (which a classic ride share ideally does). The main point cultural critics mention is that these services commercialize social interactions, exchanging helpfulness through rational calculus. You can still offer things for free (such as a classic lift, couchsurfing, …). But these services seem to question helpfulness on a societal level.



. . .

Ginger Hero

Katrina Boemig did this piece of art!

My happy HTC Hero is now all gingerbread! It had a sweet life with a custom made Eclair (VillainRom), but now I needed to spice it up so that I would talk with our company’s calDAV (Android’s sync support beyond Google and ActiveDirectory is still embarrassing). Of course, I wanted to go for ginger with more SENSE but it was too hot from the oven for me. So I tried some of Elelinux bread. I’m on plain Android for the first time (UI wise) and that makes it feel even more new to me ( :

After a couple of hours of use, I miss the Sense dialer, however, and the Sense widgets for Facebook, Twitter, and the like. These social updates are still not integrated well enough… I got also used to 7 homescreens. And it lacks the large screen widget for the calendar (I’d never thought that even that one came from Sense)!

I’m still not sure whether gingerbread “fits into” the older Hero. At the moment, it looks as if it is really taking the CPU to its limits most of the time… (particularly annoying: my homescreen icons disappear and take a couple of seconds before they show back up)

There is still hope for sensible Gingerbreads: Villain is baking, too. And, of course, honeycomb is on the watchlist.


Why Google might not so really love open source

Contrasting my earlier estimation of Google’s Android plans, Symbian’s Executive Director Lee Williams recently explained his sharp take on the Android (business) model on GigaOm. Obviously, he’s a competitor, but he also manages to shed an interesting light on potential Google plans:

The Android System is basically open, but to use it in any reasonable means (if you are not a true hacker), you need a Google Account for Mail, Maps, Market, etc. And this account isn’t just something but a unique identifier for Google to collect all of your information, your habits, and device usage in one basket. This enables them to send you highly profiled and personalized ads (which can be sold expensively, I guess).
While you personally could say, “I don’t mind”, it’s a problem for a lot of other service providers who are not able “to get through” to the customer because s/he is already tied to Google.

Additionally, the applications that enforce this strong Google Account/device connection are all proprietary, i.e. not open. Google is really serious about protecting the apps that as their series of “Cease and Desist” letters showed. And because they are so central for the Android OS, Lee Williams has a good point in claiming that Android itself is not really open. Neither concerning these central apps, nor for other service providers. Hopefully, his Symbian Foundation will keep this case in mind.

And again, it looks like a “the winner takes it all” attempt that’s one of the biggest factors of uneasiness in my mixed feelings towards Google.

thanks Fee for pointing me to this.


My Android phone: A Hero without (blue) Teeth

Exciting, exciting: the box half open

Exciting, exciting: the box half open

A couple of days ago I touched (ha!) my first Android phone. It’s more than just a test drive this time, I dropped my S60 Nokia for it. I “am” on a HTC Hero now. HTC is stepping out of its “just a OEM manufacturer” shadow once more with this phone (they was already building T-Mobile’s MDA and the O2 XDA).

Old and new, side by side

Old and new, side by side

How does it feel?

The unboxing gave me a solid first impression, from the packaging to the metal and rubber device casing. Also turning it on was of course a carefully designed pleasure but I also admit that I had all the information ready that you are asked for during your first steps (such as all your user accounts from social networks, Google login, etc.). For complete newbies that might be a bit overwhelming but I guess that this isn’t the target group anyway. Although it’s pretty large (esp. compared to my Nokia candybar) it’s also rather thin and therefore fits into pockets easily (the rubber makes it a little difficult to get it out of there again, however).

First doubts about everyday compatibility...

First doubts about everyday compatibility...

All you get in a box!

All you get in a box!

Two really good things

… in comparison to usual phones:

The Mail Widget (part of HTC’s own “Sense” UI) on one of the home screens provides you with your mail just a litteral fingerstroke away and even notifies you via the mailbox icon on the main screen. I had email on the Nokia, too, and it was really helpful to check for important messages in some difficult situations. But it was built like an annex to the regular SMS interface, took a long time to load and was just not so easy to use. Now, it is really an option e.g. to tidy up my inbox on a train ride home, including some smaller replies right away.

The second great thing, to little surprise, is the Android Market. The (Nokia) Symbian community is an active one, too, but you can’t access its fruits as easily (at the momet they are restarting anyways, with Symbian turned open source). And there are really surprising and playful apps, like the Metal Detector (by Kurt Radwanski) that makes unintended use of the built-in compass.

There are also a couple of nice aspects that are less impressive on their own but contributing to the overall experience, such as all the widgets that you can fill your many screens with, the Blackberry-like trackball, or a standardized mini USB connector for the power supply (still worth mentioning, unfortunately). A third point would be rooting the phone and discovering its Linux guts, but that’s more a fun “because you can” — oh wait. You also need it for tethering (i.e. phone as internet uplink for the laptop)!

There are downsides, too

(this section is relatively long because I was so surprised and disapointed that a phone of this class fails on what I would consider basic tasks):

Androids love to talk via wifi but they are almost silent on Bluetooth (you can attach Bluetooth headsets! wow!). Bluetooth, however, is an established method for exchanging data between small devices, like phone to PC and even more so phone to phone. In a recent study on young people and their phones done I did for my work, Bluetooth turned out to be the second important function of the phone (right after texting) because it is so easy to swap ringtones, pictures from the last party, vcards or anything. Any device has Bluetooth, anyone can use it. I had to install swiFTP (a plus for the Market but not for Android) to make my computer talk to my phone. I always made fun of the oh-so-avantgarde iPhone users who were still passing phone numbers via pen & paper. I would have never believed that a phone of today could make this misstake a second time.

The more I traveled for business reasons, the more I’ve learnt to appreciate my phone as a moving hotspot. 3G and Bluetooth drain down my battery like mad but my computer is online whereever I want (almost). The Android phone puts and end to this. No Bluetooth, no tethering. Now, most of the internet is on the Android phone already — true. But there are a couple of applications and stuff that I want to start from my computer (and note that you can’t attach files from your computer to emails on your phone without swiFTP or a cable). I read about Wireless Tether for Root that would still make it possible if I used some minor force to get root access. Which I did right away despite a couple of warnings that it also might brick the phone (thanks Jesterz and Dayzee). Having to digg so radically means that tethering wasn’t kind of forgotten but really made unavailable deep inside. WHY on Earth?

Then I have this nice Address Book on my Mac. Several hundered entries with birthdays and tags in the notes and so on. Android does everything for you as soon as you go to Google. But I don’t want to put all my addresses on Google (and I guess a couple of people in my Adress Book don’t want to be listed there, either). Google Contacts has no field for birthdays, too. So, how to sync? Android and iSync? No way (remember: Bluetooth doesn’t work). Android does sync via USB cable and HTC’s HTC Sync with Outlook (only), they say. I can barely remember such efforts and restrictions from my first Siemens phone 10 years ago. Can this be taken serious, additionally on the Mac and on-the-go?

  • Android and ActiveSync/Exchange? Granted, that’s built-in. But where would I find a trustworthy Exchange server (and for free because I think syncing my data with my devices should be nothing I pay for regularly).
  • I also tried vcardIO and Andook Lite (by Fezza) which would at least import address books from the SD card (i.e. no sync) but the applications failed before they completed their job (they are pretty beta and maybe my address book is too large). [update 2009-10-22] vcardIO had problems with the images included. Without it works very nice, except that birthday are stored as notes]
  • Android and SyncML? There is a Funambol client but it doesn’t seem to work with my o2 account. I never had to think about syncML with my Nokia, it just worked (everything was set up simply via configuration SMS!)


It’s still a great phone, the HTC Sense is a very welcome improvement over the regular Android interface and it’s all worth fighting with the downside issues. It’s completely inadequate for a phone built more or less with an open source attitude, however, to constrain the user so heavily in basic connectivity.

If there is someone out there with a non-paid, no cable, no Google solution for me, please let me know!

. .

Why Google loves Open Source

Marvin the android by kertong

Marvin the android by kertong

As (one of?) the first developer of an open source operating system for mobile phones, at least at a large scale, Google put a lot of effort into something that is available for free to anyone. Cnet was asking Andy Rubin, responsible for mobile platforms, to explain why. I found his answers so interesting that I want to wrap up some bits here:

Rubin/Google says they will profit from open access in the end (the more searching the more advertising exposure). “There’s a natural connection between open source and the advertising business model: Open source is basically a distribution strategy” with no barrier for adoption and thus maximizing outreach.

This is the definition of openness: it’s not just open source, it’s the freedom to get the information that you’re actually looking for.

This reads like from the Hacker Manifesto! It’s worth noting that Google by its sheer size can be a threat to this ideal…

They think they would loose more revenue by attempting to lock up their services just for their customers than by sharing an as open as possible internet with their competitiors:

We’re confident enough in our advertising business and our ability to help people find information that we don’t somehow demand they use Google. If somebody wants to use Android to build a Yahoo phone, great.

With Google not know as being overly philantropic, this makes a pretty strong argument against walled gardens, from a business point of view. It appears to be heavily based on Google’s dominant position in the (ad) market, however.

Android at Google's HQ by secretlondon123

Android at Google’s HQ by secretlondon123

Some nice side effects: Having a cross device operating system makes it easy for third party developers to get their services onto various devices–which will make Android more attractive, again. And it’s a great thing for software companies to provide a more consistent user experience (so designers should like it).

Good to know: In Asia, stylus input is often prefered over fingers because writing Asian letters is easier and more accurate this way.

thanks to fee for twittering this.


Jaiku is dead – hail to the new Jaiku?

This news is already a couple of months old, but it reached me now and struck me: Jaiku got abandoned by Google.

atmasphere is shedding a tear

atmasphere is shedding a tear

I have to admit that I didn’t use Jaiku all that much, basically because of a lacking base of “followers” or–even more important–people to follow. Back then, I was “following” a guy I got to know at ars electronica, and even though we were pretty far away and didn’t exchange that much on other channels, I had the impression of knowing a little bit of his life, some of his feelings, his overall mood. All created by those tiny, subjective, and instant status messages (he was also posting pretty frequently, which is a precondition but also comes by itself once everyone is addicted…). I didn’t get this experience out of any other channel. And it became my standard argument why “those private and boring details of someone’s daily life” are actually pretty valuable.

When I logged in today (6 months after my last message…), I wanted to add someone’s twitter feed. Adding other channels to your stream was actually one of the big pluses of Jaiku over Twitter (Robert Gaal has 3 more)! But all the cool options were gone (example), no other feeds to read nor to add, no nothing. Just the simple message box (which, at least, is still working).

Then I checked the phone client, which was actually much more than that: It was a replacement of your phonebook, giving you quite a bit of status information about your contacts. You could even see whether the other one was using her/his phone currently, so you didn’t have to call in vain or talk to the answering machine instead.

This feature is missing as well (you could operate Jaiku even through SMS, but I get this service is no longer supported, either…). Btw: All of this came out of a Finnish research project a couple of years ago.

On the other hand, Jaiku is now Open Source! And this means, anyone could start a similiar service. Which is great (Jaiku founder Jyri says). Unfortunately, it appears to me, that the spirit of Jaiku was also based on an substantial amount of hardware and money that allowed to run the service smoothly and provided, e.g., to receive status updates via SMS for free. So, it might be more a some- than an anyone who could create “JaiTwo”.

I’ll try to keep an eye on the great Jaiku team, as they are up to something new for sure. Meanwhile, I’ll have to turn to the twitterverse…


Steven’s Social Fabric

My Social Fabric as conceptual screenshotimg

The mobile phone as a truely social device makes an ideal plattform for social network visualisations. This gets demonstrated in a very inspiring way by Steven Blyth in his master thesis project at the now discontinued IVREA. As I found out he researched a question in the immediate neighbourhood of mine:

How can the softness and ambiguity of our social worlds be visualized within the computational and binary context of a mobile device?

The Social Fabric is a representation of your social world, displayed as a single visual array [of avatars] on your mobile phone. It does not replace your address book or calendar but keeps you subtly informed [via the body posture or the avatars!] about which relationships are prospering, which you have neglected, and the overall state of your social fabric.

social fabric - posturesimg

In lots of his ideas and writings I found good arguments for what I want to further investigate. A very good point is that ambiguous metaphors can avoid the impression that a computer system could be truely accurate about something that is vague by its nature: social networks. As I am following a rather number based approach at the moment, this is something I will consider (with this Paper by Thomas Erickson from IBM).

He also revived another fascination (deep inside of me and, actually, my thesis proposal) for agents and avatars. In his opinion they are not discarded by history, as one can hear often, but depend on the proper design and sometimes sophisticated technology. The more the latter flourish the more the first can emerge as useful companions.

In contrast to his work, visualisation is supposed to be only one facett of my thesis with further applications building on insights gained by them.
Something left unclear to a certain extent in his text is his profiling method, what I used to call the “long term relation records”. Especially when considering “old friends” and “family members” a good balancing between current communication behaviour and long time habbits can offer new possibilities to deal with the less active parts of our “circles of friends”.

Thanks to one of his co-students at IVREA, Myriel, for poking my nose into this work! It found some good resonance over different media: WMMNA (relates it to GORI), Wired, LIFT 07


open doors for friends

access scenario - part1

When moving aroud a lot it would be nice to sit down just anywhere, open the laptop and go online instantly. At least in the cities we find often a couple of access points in the neighbourhood but they are usually locked. For good reasons because how do you know what other people will do on the web via your connection?


dilemma while getting acquainted

interaction principle for social wearable displays
When we want to get to know another person, we have to share some of our personal or private opinions and feelings. Some people are more afraid of doing so — they are afraid of being vulnerable — and that’s what we refer to as shy, more or less. In a recent discussion about Experience Design, we came across the Social Button again: Primarily it is intended to facilitate exactly these initial steps towards an interpersonal relation. The button reveals matching personal criteria (common friends, e.g.) by displaying some meaningful graphics on the Social Button of the corresponding person. It is not only exposing private data (to certain extent) but uses another person as “billboard” — two factors that might make us feel uneasy in a similiar way than the usual face-to-face situation but initiated by technology.

It seems as we have to trade in control for getting to know others more easily. It was one of our goals to reduce the reasons for these privacy concerns as far as possible by implementing a symbol decoding on a subjective basis.


experience your network

Preparing an interview with Nathan Shedroff (which will be conducted by Jane Pitrowsky) I focused on an emotional aspect of my master project, the creation of feeling at home. According to Shedroff we cannot avoid evoking experiences for the user (as experience is closly linked to perception, e.g.) but it becomes a designer’s responsiblity to take care of the emotional and sensual implications of his creations (Some of his perspectives are difficult to apply to my project because I develop a service rather than a single product).