Benner on Tech: What Uber Can't Promise, Obama Does 'The Word'

Katie Benner is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about technology, innovation, and the cult and culture of Silicon Valley. She lives in San Francisco.
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People Are Talking About…

When news broke that an Uber passenger had accused a driver of rape in New Delhi, the service was quickly banned in the city and the government sounded the alarm. But as Facebook employee Sriram Krishnan pointed out on Medium, this isn’t your run-of-the-mill Uber ban.

What happened in India shows just how little control any startup has over the cultural and political realities of another country, and it raises important questions about what Uber can promise passengers.

Krishnan writes:

For us in the tech world -- how do we scale services that we take for granted when the social/cultural foundations don’t exist in other nations or there are other social dynamics at play? Do we say “Customers need this service even if we can’t guarantee what we can in the first world”? Or do we take a more nuanced approach (and what does that even mean)? I don’t know.

Uber has long emphasized safety as one of the things that make the service great. Uber means you don’t have to drive drunk, your drivers are carefully vetted, and even if something goes awry, the app will create a record of exactly where you went and what happened.

But in a country like India (and in many other parts of the world where Uber plans to expand), vetting drivers is a hard task. As Krishnan points out, the idea of background checks in a country where records are unreliable or bribery is rampant is wishful thinking at best. And in the New Delhi case, it’s been reported that the driver turned off the app or did not have GPS installed. So much for the safety that comes with surveillance. 

These issues are not Uber’s fault, but they speak to the fact that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach for launching in every city in the world. They also ask passengers to be much more wary of what it means to get into a car with a stranger. Uber drivers have offered to turn off the app for me, disabling the record of my ride, to give me a discount when we’ve been lost or stuck in traffic. I’ve not given it much of a second thought while traveling through downtown San Francisco, but I would be incredibly wary of such an offer if I still lived in Namibia or China.

The company needs to think beyond what type of culturally targeted gimmicks will get riders in cars. (Kittens in San Francisco, hot women in France…) It needs to think about how to recruit and build the business. Perhaps in places like India, it wouldn’t be a terrible idea to recruit as many female drivers as possible or try to match female passengers with female drivers. And it needs to think about what it can actually promise riders when they get into a car.  

Ventureland

Uber’s expansion contracts…

* The rideshare startup decided to launch in Portland, Oregon, without permission, and now the city has issued a cease-and-desist letter and sued the company, asking the court to declare that Uber is "subject to the City’s regulations.”

* Meanwhile, a court in the Netherlands banned the company's low-price UberPop service. "This is only the first step in a long-running legal battle," the company said in a statement. No wonder the company had to raise so much money. Long-running international legal battles don't come cheap.

* A Spanish judge ordered Uber to stop operating in Spain.

* Uber was ordered to cease operations in Thailand, too.

* The Uber driver who hit and killed a 6-year-old girl in San Francisco last December was arrested and charged with misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter. The company says that it bears no responsibility for the accident because the driver was an Uber partner, not an employee, who wasn’t actively picking up anyone when he hit the child.

Change.org has raised $25 million from two dozen investors, including well-known names such as Bill Gates, Jerry Yang, Evan Williams, Richard Branson, Pierre M. Omidyar and Reid Hoffman.

LendingClub’s amended S-1 filing says that the (unprofitable) company expects to price its initial public offering at $12 to $14 per share, valuing the company at nearly $6.5 billion on a fully diluted basis. Fortune’s Dan Primack has a nice summary of why this is such a big week for online lending.

People and Personnel Moves

Susan Wojcicki, the chief executive officer of YouTube, has joined the Salesforce.com board of directors.

Imran Khan, Credit Suisse’s former head of Internet banking, has joined Snapchat as the company’s first chief strategy officer. The Wall Street Journal reports that Khan will report to Chief Executive Officer Evan Spiegel.

Elizabeth Holmes and her blood-testing startup Theranos are the subjects of a great New Yorker story written by the great Ken Auletta.

Although she can quote Jane Austen by heart, she no longer devotes time to novels or friends, doesn’t date, doesn’t own a television, and hasn’t taken a vacation in ten years. Her refrigerator is all but empty, as she eats most of her meals at the office. She is a vegan, and several times a day she drinks a pulverized concoction of cucumber, parsley, kale, spinach, romaine lettuce, and celery.

Holmes says that she welcomes government monitoring. She says that Theranos has submitted all its lab-developed tests for F.D.A. approval -- a step that isn’t required and that no other diagnostic company has taken. “We believe that to realize our vision we must operate at the highest levels of excellence,” she told me. “And the F.D.A.’s stamp of approval is seen as an indicator of the quality of a product.”

Companies

Amazon…

* The company entered the one-hour delivery fray, going head-to-head with startups like Uber and Postmates. Remember how eBay had to rethink its own courier service? Remember Kozmo.com?

* The online retailer also wrote a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration asking for permission to test drones in Washington state. Bloomberg reports that the company is already testing drone deliveries in other countries.

* Finally, the Wall Street Journal says that Amazon is offering a new “Make an Offer” tool that lets sellers accept or reject bids for goods that are below the suggested sale price.

Apple…

* 9to5Mac reports that the company is hiring retail employees who have “a fashion or luxury background,” which could portend changes at its stores ahead of the Apple Watch’s debut next year.

* U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers disqualified the only plaintiff in the iPod class-action suit against Apple, but she also declined the company’s request to throw out the case, saying that the prosecution could name a different iPod buyer as the lead plaintiff.

Facebook…

As Bloomberg's Sarah Frier reported back in August, Facebook said that it updated its search function so that users can search posts just like they'd perform a Google search.  

Samsung…

Behold, the Gear VR Innovator virtual-reality headset is here.

Verizon…

The wireless company said that competition is forcing the company to offer steep discounts, which in turn is putting pressure on the bottom line. The Wall Street Journal also says that the number of customers leaving for other carriers is on the rise.

Cybercrime Never Sleeps

Sony can't catch a break…

* The hackers calling themselves Guardians of Peace posted a letter on GitHub demanding that the studio cancel the release of "The Interview."

It seems that you think everything will be well, if you find out the attacker, while no reacting to our demand.

We are sending you our warning again.

Do carry out our demand if you want to escape us.

And, Stop immediately showing the movie of terrorism which can break the regional peace and cause the War!

* My Bloomberg colleagues Jordan Robertson, Dune Lawrence and Chris Strohm take an in-depth look at how the hackers launched their attack from the St. Regis Bangkok.

Digital video ad fraud could cost advertisers $6.3 billion over the next year, Bloomberg News reports. Hackers account for nearly 1 in 4 digital video ad views globally, and the fake views “often take place in the middle of the night when the owners of the hijacked computers are asleep.”

News and Notes 

Hachette is partnering with the startup Gumroad to find out whether tweets about books lead to sales. The pilot program will use Twitter's buy button and includes authors with big Twitter followings, such as Amanda Palmer and Chris Hadfield.

Lu Wei, China’s head of Internet policy, may have received a chilly reception in Washington. But the New York Times says that tech bigwigs on the West Coast, including Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and Tim Cook, gave him a warm welcome.

Adrian Chen asks whether live streaming is the future of media or the future of activism. Watch this 10-minute clip of Berkeley police corralling a group of unarmed student protesters, then tell me what you think of Chen’s question. At the 20-second mark, a group of officers set upon and beat a small, unarmed person with their clubs. Throughout the video, they intermittently hit and jab women and men as the students chant “Who do you protect?”

Tardar Sauce, better known as Grumpy Cat, has earned $99.5 million in book and film deals over the last two years, according to Business Insider. For the sake of comparison, Gwyneth Paltrow earned about $19 million last year.

Fortune's predictions for 2015 are here, including cheaper solar power, wireless charging, pricier lattes and success for the Apple Watch.

Watch This

President Barack Obama does "The Word."

The best thing about drones? Drone videos. Here are some of the best of 2014.

The best thing about Bill Gates’ list of favorite books? The Lego-esque animation.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the editor on this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net