Mobile 1.0 Had Its Own Uber: Recalling The Birth of The Future
By Rick Robinson
When mobile devices first arrived, they promised to unlock entirely new consumer behaviors around products and services, with the most successful experiences still rooted in core human desires to connect and interact, as on the desktop. And it was all going to happen soon (at least that was my premise in 2000 as head of the spanking new AOL Mobile products and content group). It seems a laughably obvious statement now, but to many at the time it just seemed laughable.
Some companies did “get” it at the time, if a little too early to make it big, and they foreshadowed ridiculously successful business models spawned by more mature mobile audiences holding superior technology in the hand. One of those companies was Qsent (more on them later).
Mobile Web 1.0
In Mobile Web 1.0, flip phones were the primary vessel. Consider it. People were still getting accustomed to holding voice conversations on these devices when we started asking them to type into the screen rather than simply talk. Not the smallest hurdle to leap.
In many ways it was a frustrating time too. There were not many true believers at AOL (or outside AOL for that matter) and I can recall on several occasions getting snubbed for retaining resources to execute interesting product ideas in the pre-smartphone days (my current Urgent.ly cofounder and then-AOL-search expert Surendra Goel was an exception, offering a hand with mobile Web search).
For example, in an effort to prove how personal and important cellphones were becoming, I proposed some tack-on questions to a marketing research study the company was conducting. One of the questions I suggested was to ask AOL users if they slept with their phones beside them. If memory serves, I was dismissed with a nervous smirk.
But then again, who could blame really them? The “Wireless Internet” revolution was not happening quite as envisioned (as had already begun in Japan and parts of Europe), thanks in part to phone manufacturers and carriers who were demonstrating ignorance over what average consumers needed in order to get hooked. We looked at drab grey screens with black or green text in a “WAP” browser, with sometimes confusing navigation and slow response times. It wasn’t always a lot of fun — many adopted the retort “WAP is Crap!”
While later we engaged users with games and SMS-powered services fueled by content from the Warner Brothers movies and other properties, utility services and communication providers were proving to be the winners. Giving quick access from wherever you were for movie times, mail and messaging, all of which was favored over, say, celebrity news.
Somewhere in those nascent days when we were seeking to partner for engaging mobile experiences, we came across a little company with an ambitious goal: let people hail a cab or black car virtually using their cellphones.
E-Hailing Gets its Start
The company was called Qsent and they had been working on a mobile phone version of a service called iQtaxi that would allow users to navigate menus and tap to have a cab or black car dispatched to their location — 10 years before Uber was born. Granted, this was before the days of GPS positioning, so the customer was required to do a little more work than with today’s apps, but it worked. In fact Qsent had already talked to AT&T Wireless and Sprint about integration, and shortly after, in 2001, came to us at AOL.
As the Portland Business Journal put it at the time:
“The significance of iQtaxi is immense and far-reaching,” said Qsent Chief Executive Patrick Cox. “This service will forever change how people and businesses are able to access the vast existing taxi, sedan, and limousine industry. It’s never been done before.”
Until now, finding transportation has often been an unreliable process, especially for those traveling in an unfamiliar city. With iQtaxi, however, people on the go will easily be able to reserve transportation — by taxi, sedan, or limousine — and receive confirmation instantly. Using an Internet-ready phone, Palm or PC, users will have the ability to “e-hail” their desired form of transportation from anywhere, anytime — even silently during a meeting — and receive an immediate confirmation reply.
Users simply select their pick-up and destination locations from a list of previous entries, or enter a new location on their Web-ready phone, Palm or PC, and enter their scheduled pick-up time. Within minutes, iQtaxi will have reserved transportation and sent confirmation. iQtaxi can be accessed at iQtaxi.com and Palm users can download the Clipping App free from Palm.net. Future versions will process payments securely and easily, and will be able to determine the user’s current location.
I caught up with Patrick Cox briefly for this column, 16 years after meeting him and his team in San Francisco to secure our deal. He is now Chairman and CEO of TRUSTID, Inc., but at the time, Qsent was a 50-person company that had two main products when it launched: a knowledge based authentication and consumer contact data product called iQ411 and iQTaxi. It later sold to TransUnion:
How did the sort of “Uber of Mobile 1.0” come to be?
The idea for iQTaxi came out of conversations with AT&T Wireless. AT&T wireless was launching a new platform called wireless access protocol (WAP) and they were looking for transactional revenue based products that could be placed in a top 10 position on the screens of cellphones. iQTaxi was born.
When you created the service did you feel like you were on to something big? Did you think in terms of “on demand?”
Yes, both for increasing the value of the mobile experience beyond phone calls as well as aggregation of transportation on demand. And yes, that [on demand] was the core asset.
Talk about how you pulled off the nationwide service.
Qsent secured exclusive contracts with over 600 taxi, limousine, and black car service providers in the U.S. These 600 providers covered the top 40 U.S. markets. The technology consisted of a user requesting a car at their current location. The iQtaxi system either integrated directly with the dispatch system through an API, or if no API was available, iQtaxi had call center agents who were able to contact these car service providers over the phone to make the booking. This telephone approach was the bridge to API development at the major dispatch technology companies.
What was usage like? How many people used the service?
I don’t recall exactly, but it was small — thousands, not hundreds of thousands.
What do you think of Uber and its tremendous success?
I wish I had hung in there long enough to see smartphones come into being. But seriously… it’s a very cool product. In fact, one of my investors called me and said, “Hey, we had this idea. We were just a few years too early…”
Why did you shut the service down after a relatively short time?
WAP just never caught on. WAP was so poorly adopted. Within roughly a year, WAP was discontinued by most major carriers.
And that was the story of so many early services on Mobile Web 1.0. Solid ideas and good execution, but a little too early for consumers to grasp, and on technology they ultimately rejected.