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Why on earth is a ride-hailing giant building an app store? Ola’s surprising way forward

Why on earth is a ride-hailing giant building an app store? Ola’s surprising way forward

Why on earth is a ride-hailing giant building an app store? Ola’s surprising way forward
November 24
02:54 2017

Photo credit: Ola.

Imagine getting into a cab in the morning where your Skype call and calendar are already set up in front of you. Or hailing a car at the end of a long day of work and your favorite music is playing. And the playlist depends on whether your destination is home or a bar.

The kinds of experiences you create with an app are different for a car.

These are some of the things Ola is implementing as part of a partnership with Microsoft it sealed earlier this month. The Ola Play touch console – usually fitted to the back of a front row seat, just like on a flight – lets a commuter play music and video, adjust the temperature, or use Microsoft’s Skype for Business and Office 365.

And because Ola knows it’s you, when you book the ride, all these apps and tools are already personalized when you enter the car. You could be watching a movie on Eros on your smart TV before the ride and just continue from where you left it.

But for India’s Uber rival, it’s not just about adding productivity tools to the infotainment and personalization features on Ola Play launched a year ago. It has more up its sleeve for riders and drivers as well as car makers.

Head of Ola Play Ankit Jain says Ola is building an app store, opening up the Ola Play platform for third parties to create interesting and useful experiences for riders and drivers. How about some Starbucks coffee delivered to the car on the way to a meeting? Or an app that acts as a personalized tour guide for a city you visit, recommending places to see, what to do, where to eat.

There’s even an app in the works for drivers to find the nearest public toilet – which Jain says is a pressing need they’ve identified. It also helps with the ongoing Swachh Bharat (Clean India) campaign if people don’t have to urinate on roadsides.

The Ola app store is not public yet, but partners are already developing apps for it.

But why do these apps have to be designed for Ola Play, I ask Jain. Why does Ola want a separate app store?

“I had the same debate with myself a year ago: why can’t we just pick up something that’s already built and put it in a car?” Jain smiles in response, before going on to explain why.

“Our app store is not for a mobile phone or tablet; it’s for a car, because the kinds of experiences you create are very different for a car,” he explains. “For example, if you’re building an app for a driver, you don’t want it to be very visual and distracting. It should have minimal elements and be voice-driven so that you’re not distracting someone from the core thing they’re doing, which is different from an app that you typically build for a phone where the whole intention is to engage you. Here the intention in some ways is not to engage you.”

The Ola app store is not public yet, but partners are already developing apps for it. “We’re open to having a conversation with anyone who is interested in building experiences on Ola Play,” says Jain. Current partners include Qualcomm for the hardware, and several others including Apple and Sony for music and other apps. But going forward, Ola is aiming for more apps specifically suited for in-vehicle use.

Future of mobility

Ola co-founder and CEO Bhavish Aggarwal and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. Photo credit: Ola.

Ride-hailing apps have transformed commutes for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Cars are also getting connected to the internet and smarter, all the way from driver assistance and digital entertainment to self-driving.

But the experience of passengers in the back seat of a car is not so different from what it was decades ago. The car is an unnecessarily disconnected experience for them, says Jain.

“Car makers are always thinking of the front seat because the driver is the one making the purchase in most cases. But in the world of tomorrow, when cars become autonomous and ride-hailing is the way to go, the focus will be on the passenger. That shift hasn’t happened in the industry yet.”

Ola Play is thus a product for car makers as much as it is for riders and drivers. And this is where the partnership with tech giant Microsoft becomes more interesting for Uber’s Indian rival.

There’s an app in the works for drivers to find the nearest public toilet – a pressing need Ola identified.

Jain and I are chatting on the sidelines of an IoT Next conference in Bangalore. He’s here because IoT (internet of things) is a big piece of Ola Play.

Sensors in the car can track vehicle condition and usage, road conditions, and the environment. Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform can provide big data handling and advanced analytics. In combination, they enable preventive maintenance of vehicles, driver assistance, and third-party services related to transport infrastructure, accidents, insurance claims, and so on.

The Microsoft Cortana digital assistant chimes in with natural language processing and speech recognition: voice commands are easier than touch screens or a keyboard in a shaky car.

The app store and personalized services for riders and drivers thus sit on top of IoT and AI services from Azure. Ola’s vision is to be a global player in the emerging domain of in-vehicle tech beyond enhancing its ride-hailing platform in India.

See: What SoftBank’s $10b investment in Uber means for its battle with Ola

“We’re building a full-stack platform with Azure services plus our in-vehicle tech,” says Jain. “We can then go to any OEM (original equipment manufacturer) in the world and say here’s a ready platform that you can engage your customers with, instead of trying to build that entire stack from scratch. That’s really the power of the partnership with Microsoft for us.”

It’s still a work in progress, with different parts of it at various stages of testing and implementation. OEM deals could be expected in a year’s time. “The true power of the platform, I’m assuming that’s still five years down the line,” says Jain. “But core parts of the platform, where people can start imagining stuff to build apps and services, that will be ready within a year.”

Platform model

The likes of Tesla and Google, Uber and Didi are investing in self-driving cars. Microsoft too has partnerships with BMW and Renault-Nissan to help them build connected car services with Azure for their cars.

What makes Ola different is that it has no intention, as of now, to have its own connected cars. Instead, it wants to build a connected car platform that can go into a range of cars, that any car manufacturer can adopt. “Our secret sauce is the software and platform, not the car,” says Jain.

That’s why it has to think global in building the Ola Play platform, unlike its India-focused ride-hailing app. Ola Play needs to work everywhere so that car makers can integrate it.

There is also localization. For example, India has no service that works as well as 911 in the US. So building an emergency response is more complex than just tying into existing services. Then there is the the issue of connectivity that can fluctuate wildly.

Our secret sauce is the software and platform, not the car.

“At times you’ll be at 4g and suddenly you’ll be 2g or no-g,” quips Ankit. “We’re building a lot of things into Ola Play so that the experience, safety, and all that doesn’t get disrupted just because you don’t have good connectivity. But those features apply everywhere else too. That makes us more robust because we’re solving for a lot of those corner cases that platforms coming out of the US would not solve for.”

Uber is also now dealing with the connectivity issue in India. It has launched a lighter web-based version of its app, as Ola and Indian ecommerce leader Flipkart had done earlier. Now it is running a pilot in Mumbai to have tablets stuck on headrests for in-car infotainment a la Ola Play.

Security challenge

Jain, an MIT post-grad who left McKinsey to join Ola last year, believes it’s early days yet for the idea of a car as a platform. “When Apple and Google came up with their platforms on the phone, they didn’t design for an Uber or an Ola. So we also don’t know what will get built on top of this connected car platform. But if you can unleash that power, a lot of startups globally can build interesting experiences on top of that platform.”

He says the car will have its own use cases, just like smart TV use cases are different from those of a smartphone. “A lot of it is around driving and safety and entertainment today, but there could be a lot of things we can’t imagine yet.”

There are big challenges to be overcome too, especially in dealing with scale and security. An insecure infotainment system that uses personalization could expose users to hacks and loss of privacy. Mobile and laptop operating systems have spent a great deal of time and effort in trying to plug these risks. Smart car systems will need to at least match that.

See: Insider’s account of how Go-Jek hit 900x scale in 18 months and is still doubling

Just this week, Uber’s new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi disclosed that personal data of tens of millions of riders and drivers around the world had been hacked last year. Former CEO Travis Kalanick chose to brush the hack under the carpet instead of letting victims know about it.

source : techinasia

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