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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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Arts and Entertainment

Netflix to make SA series

The world leader in streaming movies has announced the first South African production to join its Originals roster.

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World leader in entertainment streaming services Netflix this week announced its first Original series in Africa, with South African series Queen Sono.

The news comes immediately in the wake of local rival Showmax announcing it’s first original drama production. In this context, it heralds a new phase in the evolution of streaming video-on-demand in South Africa.

The action-packed series follows Queen Sono, the highly trained top spy in a South African agency whose purpose is to better the lives of African citizens. While taking on her most dangerous mission yet, she must also face changing relationships in her personal life. The series will be created by Director, Kagiso Lediga and Executive producer Tamsin Andersson.

South African actress, Pearl Thusi, will star as Queen Sono, with the character having been created with her in mind. Thusi is also known for her performance in the romantic dramedy, Catching Feelings, available on Netflix.

Pearl Thusi stars as Queen Sono in Netflix’s first original series in Africa.

“We are excited to be working with Kagiso and Pearl, to bring the story of Queen Sono to life, and we expect it to be embraced by our South African users and global audiences alike.” said Erik Barmack, Vice President of International Original Series at Netflix.

“We are delighted to create this original series with Netflix, and are super excited by their undeniable ability to take this homegrown South African story to a global audience. We believe Queen Sono will kick the door open for more awesome stories from this part of the world” added the director and executive producer of the series, Kagiso Lediga.

The series is due to start production in 2019.

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Microsoft adds Chrome to Edge

Microsoft is working to build a new version of its Edge browser on the open-source version of Google Chrome, writes BRYAN TURNER.

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After 20 years of backing Internet Explorer and its underlying software technologies, Microsoft has chosen to integrate Chromium, the open source version of Google Chrome. This announcement comes just three years after launching Microsoft Edge, the refreshed version of Internet Explorer.

“We intend to adopt the Chromium open source project in the development of Microsoft Edge on the desktop to create better web compatibility for our customers and less fragmentation of the web for all web developers,” said Joe Belfiore, corporate VP at Windows, in a blog post on 6 December.

The change affects the back-end elements of the browser that run in the background to make the web pages work for the user. The shift includes scrapping Microsoft’s EdgeHTML rendering engine in favour of Chrome’s Blink.

Utilising the Blink engine will allow Microsoft to support versions of new Edge on Windows 7, 8 and 10, as well as a version for macOS. Belfiore said that the company had also started contributing to the Chromium open source project: “We’ve begun making contributions to the Chromium project to help move browsing forward on new ARM-based Windows devices.”

Microsoft’s move to Chrome has shifted the “browser wars” in favour of Google Chrome, as Opera and Edge will now both be using Chrome’s rendering engine.

“If you’re a Microsoft Edge customer, there is nothing you need to do, as the Microsoft Edge you use today isn’t changing. If you are a web developer, we invite you to join our community by installing preview builds when they’re available and staying current on our testing and contributions.” said Belfiore.

Edge’s project manager, Kyle Alden, confirmed in a Reddit thread that Chrome extensions will be compatible with the new version of Edge. It is expected to launch in a preview build in early 2019.

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