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Competition drives Uber to improve its ride

As Uber’s competitors ramp up, the ride-hailing app pioneer builds out its safety features, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

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When the up-and-coming ride-hailing app Taxify announced a US$175-million fund-raising round in May, it send shock waves through the world of on-demand transport apps. Not because the amount was so large – after all, Uber’s value if it lists on the stock market was  put at $120-billion last month.

The surprise was the lead investor: Daimler AG, parent company of Mercedes-Benz. It suggested a determination by vehicle manufacturers to be an integral part of the ride-sharing future.

Almost as surprising was the purpose of the investment: expansion in Europe and Africa. The former was predictable. The latter was startling. Taxify, founded in Estonia in 2013, was launched in South Africa in 2016, three years after Uber chose Johannesburg for its first service in Africa.

Taxify still struggles to gain traction, while Uber has become a household name in South Africa. That doesn’t give the pioneer room for complacency, though. With Taxify building a war chest to invest in new markets and new capabilities, Uber has to keep upping its act.

The good news and the bad news for Uber is that there is plenty that needs improving or fixing.

The default Uber map that guides drivers to their passengers’ destination is decidedly inferior to Waze, and many drivers in fact prefer to use the Google-owned traffic app. Pick-up locations are often presented differently to drivers and the passengers. Safety features are not obvious.

These and other issues were clearly on Uber’s collective mind when it recently sent out its global product head, Sachin Kansal, from San Francisco, to unveil new safety features for the South African market. The most significant of these, an emergency button in the app, is tailor-made for South Africa. To some extent, so is a new Safety Centre, designed to provide users with more information on both their rides and the local environment.

Sachin Kansal, global product head at Uber

“Think of it as an education hub,” said Kansal, who is responsible for building safety into the app. “It educates users on what we do for their safety and what they can do for their own safety, such as what they should do before they get in a car.

“It includes simple suggestions that are very relevant to the location. South Africa has suggestions that are different to the United States. South Africa emphasises the need to check the license plate of the vehicle you’re getting in, and check the driver’s name.”

Kansal said Uber realised that users were sharing their trip destinations or estimated time of arrival to the same contacts over and over again. As a result, it brought to the fore a near-hidden feature allowing users to create a trusted contacts list of people with whom location can be shared.

“We also noticed that users are a little bit more concerned about night trips, so night trips can be automatically shared with a trusted contact.”

The emergency assistance button is available to both riders and the drivers. For now, it calls private security companies with whom Uber works. The automated emergency call shows the vehicle’s make and model, license plate and current location to neighborhood security providers appointed in each area.

The ideal, obviously, is to avoid emergencies as far as humanly possible. One potential source of danger that female riders in particular brought to the attention of Uber was being dropped off right in front of their home or place of work. The fact that this made women feel more vulnerable was enough to justify another new feature: the app can suggest to riders that they be dropped off at points where a short walk would take them to their destinations.

“Part of it is based on artificial intelligence and part of it is manual,” said Kansal. “For example, we see that there’s a concert or a train station. We see that users get picked up in popular places. For the manual part, we ask our riders to report back on their ride, before the ride, during the ride and after drop-off.”

Kansal was surprisingly open to criticisms and complaints. No doubt, he is faced with much of the same wherever he goes.

“We do see on our side issues ranging from the driver to the trip itself where Uber can do more in the product. We do make that difference very clear in the back end of the system. Now we have to bring it to the fore.”

These improvements won’t be the last. They are an indication both of the extent to which Uber listens to its customers, and to which competition is the most powerful driver of improved customer service.

Click here to see Uber’s new safety features

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Gadget goes to Hollywood

Gadget visited the Netflix studios last week. In the first of a series, ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK talks to CEO Reed Hastings.

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Netflix CEO Reed Hastings is no stranger to Africa. He has travelled throughout South Africa, taught maths in Swaziland for two years with the Peace Corps, and visits close family in Maputo. As a result, he is keenly aware of the South African entertainment and connectivity landscape.

In an exclusive interview at the Netflix studios in Hollywood, Los Angeles, last week, he revealed that Netflix had no intentions of challenging MultiChoice’s dominance of live sports broadcasting on the continent.

“Other firms will do sport and news; we are trying to focus on movies and TV shows,” he said. “There are a lot of areas that are video that we are not doing: sports, news, video gaming, user-generated content. We don’t have live sport.

Reed Hastings at the Netflix studios in Hollywood last week. Pic: ADAM ROSE

“We’re not replacing MultiChoice at all. Their subscriber growth is steady in South Africa. They serve a need that’s independent of the Internet, via low-price satellite. There is no intention of capturing that audience. If they’re growing, it’s because they serve a need.”

While Reed ruled out any collaboration with MultiChoice on its satellite delivery platform, despite its collaboration with another pay-TV service, Sky TV in the United Kingdom, he did not close the door. He stressed that Netflix saw itself as an Internet-based service, and would pursue the opportunities offered by evolving broadband in Africa.

“If you look in other markets like the USA, how Comcast carries us on set-top boxes with their other services, it could happen with MultiChoice, the same as with all the pay-TV providers.

“We’re really focused on being a service over the Internet and not over satellite. Our service doesn’t work on satellite. Where we work with Sky is on Internet-connected devices. We’re happy to work on Internet-connected devices. We tend to work on smart TVs, but need broadband Internet for that.

“Broadband is getting faster in Nigeria, Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa – we can see the positive trendlines – so it’s more likely we will work with broadband Internet companies.”

Hastings is a firm believer in the idea that one content provider’s success does not depend on pushing another down.

“HBO has grown at the same time as we have, so can see our success doesn’t determine their success. What matters is amazing content with which the world falls in love.”

Click here to read on about Hastings’ views on international expansion, and how the streaming service selects content for its platform.

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Take these 5 steps to digital

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By MARK WALKER, Associate Vice President for Sub-Saharan Africa at IDC Middle East, Africa and Turkey.

Digital transformation isn’t a buzz word because it sounds nice and looks good on the business CV. It is fundamental to long-term business success. IDC anticipates that 75% of enterprises will be on the path to digital transformation by 2027. 

However, digital transformation is not a process that ticks a box and moves to the next item on the agenda – it is defined by the organisation’s shift towards a digitally empowered infrastructure and employee. It is an evolution across system, infrastructure, process, individual and leadership and should follow clear pathways to ensure sustainable success.

The nature of the enterprise has changed completely with the influence of digital, cloud and the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), and success is reliant on strategic change.

There is a lot more ownership and transparency throughout the organisation and there is a responsibility that comes with that – employees want access to information, there has to be speed in knowledge, transactions and engagement. To ensure that the organisation evolves alongside digital and demand, it has to follow five very clear pathways to long-term, achievable success.

The first of these is to evaluate where the enterprise sits right now in terms of its digital journey. This will differ by organisation size and industry, as well as its reliance on technology. A smaller organisation that only needs a basic accounting function or the internet for email will have far different considerations to a small organisation that requires high-end technology to manage hedge funds or drive cloud solutions. The same comparisons apply to the enterprise-level organisation. The mining sector will have a completely different sub-set of technology requirements and infrastructure limitations to the retail or finance sectors.

Ultimately, every organisation, regardless of size or industry, is reliant on technology to grow or deliver customer service, but their digital transformation requirements are different. To ensure that investment into artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, knowledge engines, automation and connectivity are accurately placed within the business and know exactly where the business is going.

The second step is to examine what the business wants to achieve. Again, the goals of the organisation over the long and short term will be entirely sector dependent, but it is essential that it examine what the competitive environment looks like and what influences customer expectations. This understanding will allow for the business to hone its digital requirements accordingly.

The third step is to match expectations to reality. You need to see how you can move your digital transformation strategy forward and what areas require prioritisation, what funding models will support your digital aspirations, and how this tie into what the market wants. Ultimately, every step of the process has to be prioritised to ensure it maps back to where you are and the strategic steps that will take you to where you want to go.

The fourth step is to look at the operational side of the process. This is as critical as any other aspect of the transformation strategy as it maps budget to skills to infrastructure in such a way as to ensure that any project delivers return on investment. Budget and funding are always top of mind when it comes to digital transformation – these are understandably key issues for the business. How will it benefit from the investment? How will it influence the customer experience? What impact will this have on the ongoing bottom line? These questions tie neatly into the fifth step in the process – the feedback loop.

This is often the forgotten step, but it is the most important. The feedback loop is critical to ensuring that the digital transformation process is achieving the right results, that the right metrics are in place, and that the needle is moving in the right direction. It is within this feedback loop that the organisation can consistently refine the process to ensure that it moves to each successive step with the right metrics in place.

There is also one final element that every organisation should have in place throughout its digital evolution. An element that many overlook – engagement. There must be a real desire to change, from the top of the organisation right down to the bottom, and an understanding of what it means to undertake this change and why it is essential. This is why this will be a key discussion at the 2019 IDC South Africa CIO Summit taking place in April this year. With this in place, the five steps to digital transformation will make sense and deliver the right results.

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