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Preface to “The Uber Effect” by @semil
1971, Pensford, England: Tucked away in a small, sleepy town outside Bristol, a teenager named Avery
dreamed of escaping the grey monotone of suburban life in 1960s England, the shackles of an
institutional educational system, and rigid social mores reinforced by his country's fascination with
royalty. Avery sought all forms of escape - cigarettes, reefer, too much whisky, the occasional cigar. Like
many other boys on their way to manhood, he chased after women, found himself in some barroom
brawls, and found himself often on the outside, looking in.
The bustle and mystery of the city called him. Avery quickly became bored with Bristol, setting his sights
on London. One-way ticket in hand, he took the train into town, left home for good, out to strike out on
his own, on his own terms. Over the years, he tried his hands at a variety of service jobs. Bartender. Line
cook. Office temp. Customer service by telephone bank. He could never quite make enough to live in
London proper without taking the tube over an hour per day, sometimes more. A new friend told him
about the life of a London cabbie, so Avery investigated.
Cabbies in London made much more money than Avery ever had a chance to. Being a cabbie presented
him with a chance to earn while exploring, to be in control of a machine, to meet new people, to live a life
on his terms. But, it wasn't easy. To qualify for a coveted medallion in London, drivers are subjected to a
written examination designed to test their intimate knowledge London's crooked, concrete tributaries.
Cabbies have been known to spend over a year in many cases studying, preparing for the exam, to master
They have a name for the exam: "The Knowledge." Avery, a kid who struggled in school but possessed a
drive to improve his situation, acquired enough knowledge through practice to obtain "The Knowledge."
Finally, in 1980s London, Avery was on his way.
Mapping Holds The Key
2001, Mountain View, California: For decades, the areas surrounding Stanford University were mostly
uninhabited, sprawling orchards, rolling hills, a temperate escape from the mercurial weather and fog of
San Francisco. A few years earlier, a little Internet technology company called Google moved out of
Stanford, spent a bit of time in Palo Alto, and headquartered itself in Mountain View. The concentration
of talent at Google served as an encouraging magnet for other computer science teams and tinkerers.
One such team formed a company called "Keyhole."
Keyhole's DNA included all the ingredients required for a futuristic endeavor. They started near Google,
near NASA Ames in the Valley, received strategic investment from Sony and the CIA's venture capital arm,
In-Q-Tel. The company's core technology focused on powering geospatial data visualizations in a variety
A few years later, Google, about to go public and growing in power, acquired Keyhole for an undisclosed
sum. From the official press release: "Keyhole's technology combines a multi-terabyte database of
mapping information and images collected from satellites and airplanes with easy-to-use software." Years
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earlier, the U.S. Government launched Corona satellites into space. Keyhole leveraged that investment
and innovation to build its core technology, and when it had enough power, Google grabbed the asset on
its slow march to gather sources of information.
The Proliferation Of Mobile Technology
2001, Cupertino, California: A few miles from Google's HQ, and when Keyhole was just getting started,
Apple Computer began reemerging as a powerhouse for personal computing. In 2001, its iconic founder
released one of the company's signature products, the iPod, a single device to put thousands of music
files in our pockets. Music, however, was just beginning. Most observers knew the iPod was just version
one for Apple to enter the cell phone market. It took about six years, and in 2007, Apple did just that.
A signature application on Apple's original iPhone was a mapping product provided by Google. After the
acquisition of Keyhole, the core technology from the company helped provide a foundation for future
mapping applications, such as Google Earth and Google Maps. For a mobile phone, navigation technology
was a must-have, and Apple needed to work with its potential rival, Google, to provide this to its users.
A few years prior to the release of iPhone, a startup in Palo Alto called Android was formed in 2003.
Android's mission was to build more advanced mobile operating systems for the world of connected
devices that was approaching. In 2005, Google acquired Android and its key executives to develop
Android in-house. At the same time, Google's CEO was also on the board of Apple, guiding the company
before the launch of iPhone. Google released the source code for Android and helped it grow to be the
world's most-used mobile operating platform, and as a package, a distribution vehicle for Google Mobile
Services, which includes Google Maps in a mobile context.
A Test For The Knowledge
It would be an understatement to say the market for mobile phones exploded. It is the now the largest
market we have ever seen, and a key part of our mobility is to have the power of navigation in our palms.
Our phones are outfitted with sophisticated sensors which pinpoint our location, send data to remote
computers and satellites, and make it easy to drive to the next sales call or to meander on a road trip.
In the span of seven years, from the creation of Keyhole to the first iPhones shipping to customers,
mobile maps transformed the knowledge that cabbies like Avery spent years acquiring and placed that
knowledge in the cloud, retrieved on demand by anyone with a phone and data connection. The
combination of technologies for mapping and mobility distributed "The Knowledge" to the rest of the
In 2009, a young company perhaps unwittingly took advantage of these conditions, and a result, will be
the subject of this book: Uber. Mobile phones with maps initially replaced the in-dash and dashboard GPS
systems in our cars, but few could have envisioned Uber's timing and impact.
Initially launched in San Francisco, Uber built a peer-to-peer network on top of these mobile apps, on top
of these phones, to connect potential drivers with potential passengers. Uber grew quickly and expanded
its coverage geographically around the world, now in over 40 countries and over 200 cities. Struggling to
keep up with passenger demand, Uber needed to not just convert existing taxi drivers to Uber drivers, but
also recruit new drivers to its platform marketplace.
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Along the way, municipal governments would often fight Uber, sensing a threat to the taxi medallion
programs insiders and politicians benefitted from. What they may have miscalculated, however, is that
Uber was ready to fight a multi-front war, around the world, and in parallel, a class of mobile software
battle never seen before -- and passengers wanted more.
When a product like Uber eventually reached a place like London, it shattered much of the convention
drivers like Avery had grown accustomed to operating within. The years he spent studying for his cabbie
exam, and the years thereafter where he'd grown to be an expert navigator of London's serpentine roads
were all now under threat of obsolescence. He was recruited by Uber, but he was loyal to the London
system and his fellow cab mates. He could potentially earn more on Uber, but like many other cabbies,
Avery received more than a few stern warnings from the local commissions to keep his medallion and
operate his car.
A few months passed and Avery felt the competitive pressure around his industry, all of a sudden. He
didn't see it coming, but now it was unmistakable. What he didn't realize, like many others, is that the
spread of mobile technology (including maps) provided everyone with the same access to information, in
this case, topographical information, paired with the power of navigation. "The Knowledge" Avery
struggled so hard to cram into his mind was now available to anyone in London with just a few taps of
The Knowledge had been distributed, and now Avery's future income was in jeopardy. Should he jump
over to Uber? How would that change his habits, his schedule? What would it be like working for Uber, or
on Uber's system? For a guy who struggled to escape Pensford, made his own way through London, and
reached a comfortable place in life, the advancement of Uber presented a very real threat.
Historical And Science Fiction Converge
2005/2009, Stanford and Berkeley, California: The story of Avery is just historical fiction, but the new
challenges facing taxi commissions and experienced taxi drivers is very real. An application like Uber, built
on top of years of existing mobile technologies, from satellites, to GPS sensors, to maps, and reorder the
manner in which we conduct business, share content, and in this case, move from Point A to Point B.
Around the same time Uber was hatching in the mind of its creators, groups of scientists at Stanford
(given DARPA funding) helped bring a self-driving car technology to prototype and won awards. The
leader of that group now works at Google, which also acquired in 2011 a little known technology company
in Berkeley called 510 Systems, named after the area code of its headquarters. 510 Systems specialized in
self-driving and street view cameras and imaging, and some believe helped cement Google's initiatives
around autonomous navigation and self-driving vehicles.
In 2013, Google Ventures, one of Google's investment arms, led a $250 million equity investment in Uber
Technologies, valuing the company (at that time) just under $4 billion. Google's two founders are also
friends with Elon Musk and angel investors in his company, Tesla, the iconic electric motor vehicle
This is all to say that while Google made its mark by creating a system to optimize online ads, it also used
that windfall wisely, shrewdly acquiring and investing in technologies that will power its next life, and
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many signs point to self-driving cars being one of the "experiments" that breakthrough with the right
solution at the right time.
A few years ago, a visitor to London could have flagged down Avery as a taxi driver, and Avery would pay
license fees and royalties to the commission for the privilege of having this job. Today, visiting London
and using Uber, a visitor may request a ride and route that coincide with Avery's location and preferred
destination, and Avery is paid directly with Uber taking a percentage of the fare as a house rake for
managing the game. And, tomorrow, on a visit to London, we may open up Uber, and a driverless car may
appear and take us to Whitechapel for dinner, or back to the airport for our next adventure.
Historical fiction blends with reality and bleeds into science fiction. That is the story of Uber's rise and
provide a lens by which we can envision a future world, mobile-enabled, marketplace-driven, supported by
more peer-to-peer interactions governed by technology and algorithms rather than government rules and
royalties. Is the world ready for the application of these technologies? What conditions exist to make
these companies viable? How are humans organizing themselves today? What behavioral economic
models will tomorrow’s societies be built on?
The answers to these questions result in "The Uber Effect," and this is what I'll explore in the book. I hope
you enjoy it.
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