The folks over at Uber are probably still high-fiving after their recent victory in Washington, D.C., and rightfully so. The ruling by the D.C. City Council essentially legalized “e-hail” services and also made it simpler to provide unified smartphone-driven and GPS-guided electronic dispatching services for limos, cabs, vans, and just about any other form of licensed transportation. The ruling does not, however, cover Lyft, SideCar, and other ride-sharing services that tap nonprofessional drivers seeking to make a couple bucks and ferry a few passengers.
Anyone who has used Uber can understand how addictive it is to grab your phone, push a single button, quickly get a ride, and never have to pull out a credit card or cash. Lyft and SideCar both aspire to this level of simplicity. The ride-sharing and e-hail apps all have one thing in common: As they get traction, they will become a fixture on the first screen of more and more smartphone owners around the world. The apps will also demand the attention of users at a two key moments: when someone decides he or she needs to go from Point A to Point B and when a person arrives in a new place.
Both are key transaction moments. When I am going somewhere, there is a strong possibility that I might be interested in useful information about that place. Is there a solid pizza joint? A homemade ice cream shop? How about a microbrewery? I’m on the move and I’m interested. Naturally, a moment pregnant with discovery is also ripe for advertising, lead-generation, or referrals — even more than check-ins, I’d wager. With a check-in, I’m usually already there. The agenda is set, not in stone, but I’m at a restaurant or a bar. The e-hail apps get people before they have checked in and that’s a critical difference. The makers of e-hail apps have not broached this topic but I am certain it has entered their minds.
Secondly, the e-hail apps possess something that Google, Apple, and PayPal aspire to have. That is, user credit card information. For now, Walletshare is used to pay for transport. But it’s entirely conceivable that the fast-growing ranks of Uber users would not be averse to other commerce offerings that could be paid for through the phone app. These users are probably even more accustomed to the idea of paying over the phone than people who use Google Wallet or Apple’s Passbook, neither of which has achieved wide adoption or viral growth. For local merchants, they may be able to push loyalty programs, local deals or other marketing efforts to Uber users in that key moment when they happen to be in the neighborhood. And that could be a beautiful thing for the e-hail guys.
Alex Salkever is an executive at a cloud computing company and a former technology editor of Businessweek.com. The views expressed in this column are his own and not those of his employer. His Personal Fight column appears every second Wednesday on Street Fight.