This is Uber's secret weapon in its quest for world domination
It's already in 415 cities worldwide, and that number's increasing steadily.
But that's just in the physical world. More cleverly, Uber also wants to penetrate every corner of your online life as well. At some point, if Uber has its way, you should be able to summon an Uber from just about any piece of technology you use."We're in the business of being where people are, so it's not sufficient to say, well you guys need to come to where we are and what we think is comfortable for us," says Chris Messina, Uber's developer experience lead in an interview at Uber headquarters. "We need to get out there and be present where people are spending their time and are comfortable."
Uber's push began in November 2014 when a button showed up in Google Maps showing potential riders how long it would take if they would call an Uber instead. It was a little tease, but to Uber, it meant being there in the moment someone was deciding how to get somewhere.
By the time Facebook announced in April that bots were coming to Messenger - a moment heralded as big as the launch of App Store, Uber was already there, having added the ability to hail a ride five months before.
But that's the start - Uber's secret weapon in the future is turning these experiences and the ride itself into magical moments.
Building its Trojan horse
Uber's strategy to be everywhere began in August 2014 when it first launched its API. This is programming method that basically enables apps to talk each other - so a Yelp restaurant page can include a Google map of a restaurant's location or a developer can add the ability to hail a car straight from their app.
In Uber's case, it opened it up to be everywhere - at least in a primitive form.If you work in an office, you can grab an Uber from right within Microsoft Outlook, Slack, or Atlassian's HipChat. You can call an Uber from Microsoft Windows 10, or price one up via Google Maps.
You don't even need a phone. You can hail a ride from an Apple Watch, Pebble smartwatch, or Microsoft Band 2 fitness tracker. If you ask Alexa for an Uber on your Amazon Echo, it can call one just from you talking to it in your living room.
As Business Insider's Matt Weinberger summarized, it's a strategy to get Uber in front of as many people as humanly possible without making them go the extra step of downloading an app.
The bot revolution
Sometimes, you don't even need to summon a ride. Thanks to its Facebook Messenger integration, if you mention you're going to take an Uber somewhere, it might pop up with a suggestion to request a ride.
Chatbots are being heralded as the next wave of communication, and Uber is right there.
Messina calls it the dawn of "conversational commerce."
"The conversational commerce concept framing for me is more about bringing brands and services into the conversational context which used to be reserved for friends and family. Having bots and businesses appear in Messenger or iMessages is the novel thing for western audiences," Messina says.Uber's focus has been making sure it's one of the first in - it beat Lyft to an integration by several months - and one of the best.
To Rahul Bijor, Uber's head of product for strategic partnerships, Facebook's big bot announcement at F8 validates what the team has been working on since they joined up with the social network five months earlier.
"We're so entrenched in it [in Silicon Valley] - in some ways, it's been reinforced after F8 - but [people] have very low expectations of how brands and expectations in a conversational context," Messina said. "What we'd like to do is provide a lot more delight. So if someone's like 'ugh I wish could I order an Uber from here' suddenly they can."
That doesn't mean that the Uber app is sidelined forever - but Uber isn't also only clinging to it as the only means to reach customers.
"Uber is in the business of providing transportation logistics as a service, not building apps. An app is a way to provide our service to customers in a convenient, familiar, and friendly way, but it's not the only way we provide access to our service. Ultimately we want to be everywhere our users are and also taking into consideration their environment," Messina says.
However, building a chatbot into Messenger and future messaging platforms comes with a unique challenge compared to adding a button on Google Maps: People can chat back.
Kristen Grenga talks to people on Messenger all day from Uber's office in Phoenix, but most people think she's a bot. Her community support team is on the front lines of dealing with the barrage of chats coming in, but it was a conscious decision to put humans behind the keyboard, and not just turn it off.
To start, Uber is having all humans all the time respond to people chatting them on Messenger. There are some automated actions, like sending a rider an ETA or a receipt, but everything else is a human response.
Because Uber can be reached in a messaging platform, people treat talking to Uber like having a conversation - complete with a "hi" and a "bye".
"We see everything from those 'Hi', 'How are you?', 'Are you guys a bot?', 'Are you fake?', to actual support questions on rider and driver partner side," Grenga said.
While Grenga is one of the faces behind the Uber bot now, Uber may start looking at ways to add a little bit of extra automation into its chat, similar to how Amazon does now, Bijor said.
"For the most part, if 30,000 people ask a question, it doesn't make sense to have 30,000 conversations happen. We can learn from the first 10 and be like OK this is a common question that comes up, make this an automated response," Bijor said.
It's still early days though, and for now, the questions haven't even slowed down, according to Grenga. As more people start interacting with the bots, Uber will have to build up its support for people incessantly chatting it - a potential problem for a company already looking a few months down the road.
The bigger future
While the API is only two years old, creating these relationships with companies and developers is a crucial part of Uber's long term plan. One day, Uber wants to become the platform - not just integrate itself in others.
"We want people to build businesses on what we're doing," Messina says. "You'll see that's actually an important play for Uber in the future, making Uber useful to people in the future to more people, more places, more context."In January, the company released the start of a plan, a project called Trip Experiences. The goal is for other businesses to reach Uber passengers while they ride, to make those rides more interesting and pleasant, instead of just dead time.
For example, someone who has opted into letting an airline know when they're in an Uber could get updates on their flight and a map of the airport pushed to their phone while they're in a ride. Or a news organization could know that you're on a 15 minute trip and send 15 minutes worth of stories. A podcast could be split into a six-minute segment for a rider to listen to. A music company could create a 17-minute playlist to match an after work mood on a Friday.
"We look at that as businesses building on top of the platform and essentially letting businesses establish a partnership with us," Messina says.
This is nice for customers and a new channel for businesses, but it also helps Uber stand out from competitors like Lyft in the U.S. and Lyft partners like Didi Kuaidi in China and Ola in India.
"We want to make sure the experience is great and people know that it's Uber," Bijor says."If we get to the point where it's white label, generic commodity of an experience, for us we would have failed. We want to continue to hold ourselves to a high bar, no matter what the platform is."