Uber-for-X: A different kind of “disruptive?”

A thought-provoking piece in The Atlantic.

Now, you can do stuff that you could already do before, but you can do it with your phone. What it takes to make that work is incredible—venture capitalists have poured $672 million combined into Wag and Rover!—but the consumer impact is small. Instead of taking a number off a bulletin board in a coffee shop and calling Eric to walk Rufus, you hit a few buttons on your phone and Eric comes over. Very successful companies, the Ubers and Lyfts, do begin to shift urban systems—but only once they’ve been operating for long enough. Even figuring whether ride-hailing is taking cars off or adding them to the road is complicated.

It’s not hard to look around the world and see all those zeroes of capital going into dog-walking companies and wonder: Is this really the best and highest use of the Silicon Valley innovation ecosystem? In the ten years since Uber launched, the phones haven’t changed all that much. The world’s most dominant social network became Facebook in 2009, and in 2019, it is still Facebook. The phones look the same. Google is still Google, even if it is called Alphabet.

Alexis C. Madrigal

But does this characterization sell Uber-for-X services short? The it’s-nothing-new-just-now-on-your-phone angle?

I’m not convinced it does. I’ve used lots of Uber-for-X services just a few times—ones that are designed, really, to replace activities that I’m used to doing. Grubhub, for example. I used it once. I have an account. But I don’t use it several times a week when I probably could. I guess the value added is just too small relative to the hassle (which, I guess, means it doesn’t add value, on net). That hassle being like—30 seconds of button-pressing on my phone? That’s a very small value-added, indeed.

Another issue with these apps is the following (and I mention this a lot):

There’s only so much room on your phone. Apps like Grubhub and even Uber/Lyft can be quite useful, but not for most people most of the time. Airbnb is a great example—I’ve used it, and I downloaded the app. But after a few months of not using, I deleted it. It was just clutter.

I’m guessing most Airbnb users are like me. They use it, and they like it. But they don’t use it that often, because they don’t travel that often. Every few months, maybe.

So what about services (like Grubhub) you might use once or twice a month? Is that often enough to use up space on your phone? And if it’s not, are you going to remember that the service exists next time you order takeout?

Maybe you’ll remember if you reeeeally hate walking/driving 10 minutes to pick up your food. And then, of course, the restaurant (or, generally, product) you chose needs to be integrated with that app. And I don’t think most people like restricting themselves to just one app’s options when picking their food, or most other products (but especially food).

(This doesn’t necessarily have to be about actual hard drive space. I think many people just don’t like their screens cluttered with a bunch of apps they rarely use.)

You get my point.

The question, then: How much has Uber-for-X changed things, fundamentally?

Musings on innovation

Musings on innovation from Mark P. Mills:

It’s not that disruption (possibly the second most over-used tech word, after “awesome”) isn’t wired into Silicon Valley’s ecosystem. But foundational economic and social transformations don’t come from making products to compete with cab or power companies; they come from basic research that radically advances our understanding of—and thus derivatively, our ability to manipulate and literally engineer—nature’s underlying laws and materials. The apotheosis of such progress is the domain of the Nobel Prizes.

It is time for today’s tech giants to expand their vision in a way that would win a few Nobels. They need to step up, be bold, and make history by launching a major initiative to invest in basic science. This is a critical time. America has exhausted the extant model, dating back to World War II, for funding basic research. Our overall spending on basic research has been declining, a fact highlighted by the broad coalition of universities and researchers that has launched The Innovation Deficit project.