As it looks to cast a wider net to bring new users onto its platform in India, ride hailing giant Uber is launching services that will allow customers with low-end smartphones and even feature phones book rides with it.
In the coming weeks, Uber will roll out enhancements to its app that will allow users to book cabs more seamlessly in places with bad network connectivity. However, for customers who cannot install its app, the company has launched a mobile site and is also piloting a service for people to book cabs through phone calls.
The new initiatives have emerged out of Uber's new Rider Global Access team, which is largely based out of the company's development centre in Bengaluru. While these services have been built keeping in mind the challenges in India, Uber says they will definitely find application in several other regions across the world.
"This team is working on innovation which of course touches the India market but also touches the global market. A lot of innovation has come out of this team, for example cash payments. Cash payments is now used globally, it started here and now we can't imagine Uber without cash payment," said Daniel Graf, Vice President of Product at Uber.
The most interesting of the announcements Uber made in India on Friday was the company's pilot in Pune to allow users to book cabs through phone calls. For this, the company is placing hoardings at strategic locations where they see a lot of pickups, displaying a phone number and a unique code.
Users making the call will be asked the dial in the code, giving Uber the exact whereabouts of the person. The service is being targeted at users who do not have smartphones and the company says can also be used by existing customers in case they are unable to access the Internet at that given moment.
"Voice is a modality that people are used to, and we saw people wanting to call to get a ride, both in Brazil and here (in India). Every one of these codes is tied to a specific physical location. So we're doing this as a test to see how and if we can make it better. You don't need to have the app to really experience the magic of Uber," said Peter Deng, Head of Rider at Uber.
Uber's biggest rival in India, Ola had started its service offering customers cabs on call. The company however shuttered its call centre in July 2015, citing that India's smartphone base was finally large enough for millions of users to have the app. Ola now allows users to book cabs through SMS when they are offline.
For users with older smartphones, the company has released a progressive web app that doesn't require users to install the app on their devices. Ola too had launched a similar service in May this year, and Uber seems to be plugging the gaps in its service in order to get up to speed with its largest rival in India.
All the new services aimed at accessibility in low-network areas and on feature phones have been largely built in India, with engineers from here travelling to Brazil as well to test them out. After opening its development centre in Bengaluru in February, the company on Thursday opened its second development centre in Hyderabad.
"What's unique in India (compared to other developing markets for Uber) is we have tech teams on the ground. We have tech teams in the US, in Europe and in India. Nothing beats having your guys on the ground and naturally that leads us to being innovative," added Graf. "From the tech leadership point of view, there's a strong commitment and belief in this market, both in the business side and also on the talent side."