An intriguing Uber platform play


Imagine Uber, the on demand driver service, that has been gaining traction here in South Africa wasn’t just about being able to call a car to get somewhere pretty much at a whim? What if that is just a proof of concept for a broader platform strategy?

This thought came to me during my introductory chat with Uber’s Neeraj Singhal almost two months ago and it remains a pretty fascinating, if largely hypothetical, model for this intriguing service. The idea of Uber as a platform isn’t new, I just read a 2012 post on HBR about the challenges of establishing Uber as a dynamic pricing platform. What struck me is how interesting it would be if what Uber really becomes is a localised and distributed transportation platform and the “town car” model we are accustomed to is just the first step to prove the model?

Imagine an Uber courier model where you can check the mobile app for nearby courier/delivery vans that you can call to your office within half an hour to pick something up and deliver across town? I occasionally need to deliver a document and the current options are getting in my car and taking it there (or sending a team member instead) or calling a courier service and arranging for a pickup sometime later that day or the next day.

Uber moves into a city, partners with local providers to operate its service. Uber trains the local drivers, equips them with apps (and devices?) and manages the payment side of the service. The result has subtly revolutionised not just your idea of a taxi service but also the idea of car ownership. In the process, this creates tremendous opportunities for smaller operators willing to join the local Uber opportunity.

If the “on demand” and micro delivery model is feasible for courier services, it could completely disrupt the current bulk/batch collection and delivery model for a substantial share of the current courier business model. It could mean dispensing with the need to batch deliveries and invest heavily in planned routes and, instead, fuel the growth of small scale delivery services using bicycles and motorbikes which can usually only handle smaller loads. It also lends itself to highly localised services which don’t need to service large regions to be viable.

The use case is may be pretty specialised (say, only lawyers with particular delivery requirements) or open up to a wide range of deliveries subject to size constraints, for example. In many ways, it is pretty close to the Mr Delivery service except being food.

Another option which I find pretty interesting is a drone/UAV model where relatively cheap and remote-controlled drones are used to deliver small packages like medication from pharmacies to homes using GPS co-ordinate and specially designed receptacles. You could use the same system for small document and package deliveries generally. No need for petrol, drivers (and salaries), just some sort of receptacle that a drone could recognise, dock with and drop its package. Heck, Uber could do something like this itself in collaboration with a new industry of drone makers and operators.

This on-demand platform we see emerging in our cities has local knowledge, is enormously flexible and is likely to disrupt a number of existing services. If you can add elements of the Internet of Things and a future generation of programmatic contractual interactions, our future commercial work could look pretty different.

For the time being, Uber is worth watching carefully. For me, I just need to actually use the service!


  1. […] love the idea and, you know what, I had the same idea last year. I’m not saying Google got the idea from me (smart people there and they’ve probably […]

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