To conjure up the metaphor of the buggy-whip maker is to make a point about how the introduction of new technology to an industry has made old products obsolete. It has been used so often since the advent of the Internet and even more so with the ubiquity of today’s apps and smartphones, that it is now cliché.
But if I may, the story of the buggy-whip maker is perhaps no more apt than when discussing the introduction of Uber to the marketplace.
When was the last time you took a cab in Ottawa and thought, “well now, that was a pleasant experience”? From the late or forgotten pickups, to the way your driver looks at you sideways if you offer to pay with your credit card – as if it were the first time someone had ever tried something so preposterous – the Ottawa cab industry is due for a shakeup.
Ottawa residents may be surprised to discover that their city doesn’t have a competitive taxi marketplace. A monopoly exists in dispatch and most of the cab companies are owned by Coventry Connections. Were you offended by BlueLine’s service and opted for DJ’s instead? Sorry, they’re owned by the same parent company. Capital, West-way, and Airport taxi? Peel away your impression of competition, and instead you’ll find a cab cabal.
Of course, the City of Ottawa has an interest in protecting its revenue stream via its licensing system. The Uber model disrupts and easily supplants this antiquated and closed system. Yet, Mayor Jim Watson says the City of Ottawa will throw the book at Uber if it operates as an unlicensed taxi service in Ottawa.
Like all products and services that people want, Uber has been able to grow organically. As a result, the startup is now in over 45 countries and 200 cities worldwide. The “secret” to Uber’s success – and that of almost any technology company – has been to innovate in part of the marketplace that is poorly or inefficiently served. Just ask a travel agent – if you can find one nowadays – how the booking industry changed since grandma learned how to book her cruise with a “point and click.”
Today, Shopify is the darling of the Ottawa business community. It revolutionized e-commerce and helps small businesses reach new customers with easy-to-implement web storefronts.
Of course, companies who dismiss it all as a fad find themselves out of business quickly.
Imagine if traditional brick-and-mortar shops had turned away from adopting better ways to serve customers, to instead stop Shopify by regulating the company out of existence. “If only there were a law to shut down the Internet,” they might say.
For the rest of us who aren’t trying to alter reality, shouldn’t we be free to transact how we wish with companies that provide a superior service?
Uber is a boon for this town of government and professionals. Payment information is preloaded in the Uber app, so no need to pull out cash or credit. A receipt is automatically emailed for easy expense filing. For those concerned about transparency and accountability, receipts provide not only the cost of the trip, but a map from origin to destination.
Virtually everyone that tries Uber is both surprised about the positive difference it provides compared to traditional cabs, and also that such a service had not already been invented. Let the people of Ottawa be free to choose their ride. Indeed, Jim Watson can continue to trudge along in his BlueLine buggy, but for the sake of the rest of us, it’s time to retire the whip.
This article originally appeared in the October 9th, 2014 edition of the Ottawa Citizen, published by Postmedia Network.