The tale of the tape: Uber vs. the taxis

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Here's a riddle for you. Why is an Uber car like a Betamax tape? Answer: both are disruptive innovations. And both are being dealt with by incumbent industries in exactly the same way -- with mindless blunt force.

When the Betamax videotape format was released in the '70s, the movie industry, fronted by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), reacted like The Hulk on meth. The head of the MPAA at the time, Jack Valenti famously frothed, "I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone." And, of course, the MPAA attacked Betamax, the VCR and home recording in general in the courts. It took years for the industry to realize the whole renting and buying movies to watch at home thing might be a new revenue stream. First, "Hulk smash!" Then, common sense.

Of course that reaction will be familiar to anyone who watched the music industry lose its shit over Napster, newspapers going insane over Google or any number of other incumbent industries legally lashing out at new technologies they later embraced. Witness the music labels and Apple Music and major newspaper outlets letting Facebook deliver their content.

Which brings us to Uber. The taxi industry, taxi unions and municipalities who hand out taxi licenses are whining, fining and maligning the upstart Uber. The only ones who seem happy with the service are, well, its customers and many of its drivers. Because, really, few folks are going to go to bat for the taxi industry on the basis of customer service and car care. Everyone has been stiffed by a cab or has been refused a ride because the distance was too short. And no one except the rich owners of the lucrative taxi plates would argue the current cab industry is a model of fairness and egalitarian wealth distribution. Yes, Uber has had its own teething problems with its broculture stupidity, but again, the taxi industry isn't exactly an NDP family day picnic itself. And, as for the assaults against women by Uber drivers, while any assault is too many, there is actually no way of knowing if Uber's track record is worse or better than the taxi industry's.

And here's the interesting technology angle on this battle. The software tools that enable Uber to economically dispatch, charge, track and analyze their cars have been as available to the cab companies as they have been to Uber. So has the ability to create customer-facing applications for smartphones that make ordering and paying for an Uber car an almost frictionless transaction.

There was absolutely nothing that stopped the taxi industry from developing the tools themselves. Well, nothing except for zero incentive on the plate owners' part to change the way they milk a cash cow. And nothing except an incumbent industry's repeated blindness to see that their industry is about to be changed forever by an upstart who is actually paying attention to societal and technological change.

I find it fascinating that in all the stories I've read about how Uber is bad for the cab industry I have yet to come across an industry spokesperson who says, "Well, I guess that customers are telling us they don't like our service, the state of our cabs, the attitude of our drivers or our prices. This is a bit of a wake-up call for us." Instead -- whine, fine and malign.

It's not as if the signs weren't there. Mobile commerce via smartphone has been on a steady climb for years. So has the sharing or "gig" economy which has spawned bike sharing, AirBnB and other on-demand via mobile services. So have smartphone sales. And, so has the steady word of mouth about what a refreshingly great experience Uber is. Which is, of course, merely an echo of music lovers' praise for Napster in the face of legal actions against them by labels and the widespread consumer embrace of the VCR, despite the strangler warnings.

So, I have little sympathy for the taxi industry. As for whining, fining and maligning, that's just the sound and fury of another industry that let greed, sloth and technology catch up with it. And that's a car we need not flag down.

Listen to an audio version of this column, read by the author, here.

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for rabble.ca on technology and the Internet.

Photo: Dirk Heine/flickr

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