Anyone who lived through the cola wars and the supermarket wars will know one thing. The first casualty of any commercial war is information. This remains true for the latest war to hit the streets – the smartphone taxi app war.
It's a war where three sides are vying for your transport dollar – two are Australian: goCatch and ingogo, while the third is a US import - Uber. Ask any of these companies who is winning the war and they are unequivocal – we are.
“We were the first to the market and we've been the market leader for some time,” says Andrew Campbell, joint CEO and founder of goCatch, which was the first to bring a taxi app into Australia in 2011.
Ingogo says it was digitising taxi rides a mere 10 weeks after goCatch, and has since caught up.
“In the two biggest markets – Melbourne and Sydney – we're the biggest, which means we're well ahead,” says Hamish Petrie, ingogo's founder.
Uber may have arrived only a year ago, but Sydney general manager David Rohrsheim is just as adamant. “I can confirm that taxi drivers throughout Australia get more jobs through Uber than any other app and riders book more rides through our taxis than any other app across Australia.”
If everybody's a winner, then perhaps the more exacting question is what features and strategies each company is employing to win custom.
The apps allow taxi drivers and passengers to bypass the established taxi networks to communicate directly with drivers to book and pay for cabs. Passengers can now contact drivers directly, track the taxi's location and even rate drivers.
The apps are ingenious adaptations of global positioning systems. Press it and the closest affiliated taxi will usually respond in seconds. Like a computer game coming to life, you watch a cartoon taxi thread its way across a digital map direct to your locale, finally materialising as the real thing.
The war has been less about app features, more about ways to build legions of loyal cabbies. GoCatch's loyalty system rewards drivers willing to take small and distant jobs. In so doing drivers move up the scale and are progressively rewarded with more lucrative jobs.
“We'll give drivers bonuses for picking up a certain amount of jobs in a certain time-frame,” says Campbell. “If the job value is low, we'll put a bonus on it to get a passenger picked up. If it's really busy we'll give bonuses for picking up jobs in specific periods.”
Ingogo's loyalty system is more about disincentives. It offers bookings in advance, with non-showing or cancelling drivers penalised $10. That sum is then awarded to the taxi who takes the job. If none take it, the customer receives a $10 credit for having his time wasted. “It's there to make sure we offer customers a reliable experience,” Petrie says.
Ingogo and Uber require each driver to have special dedicated hardware but goCatch prides itself on its instant connection to a driver's own iphone or android smart phone.
Ingogo says it is not just an app but a complete all-in-one payments system, the only app connected directly to Eftpos, enabling it to pay fares directly into drivers' accounts.
One interesting Ingogo feature allows passengers to send a text to their destination which contains a map pinpointing the rider's location. “It's perfect if you're late for a business meeting and you need to show exactly where you are,” says Petrie.
Uber offers three forms of transport – the high-end Uber Black or hire car option; Uber taxi; and Uber X, the cheaper ride-sharing option. “We're the only app which gives passengers choice,” says Rohrsheim. Prices for Uber Black are around 30-50 per cent higher than the taxi option, while Uber X prices are roughly the same percentage cheaper. The app offers pre-ride estimates of journey costs.
Uber recently trialled a 40 per cent price reduction for Sydney taxi passengers in off-peak times, but Rohrsheim won't disclose if this was subsidised. The end result, he says, was that it cemented the need for the cheaper option. “It showed us that a big city needs to be able to offer more affordable transport,” he says.
GoCatch says that 26,000 of Australia's 70,000 taxis are connected to its app – that's more than a third of all Australian taxis. It says it has processed 600,000 jobs (at an average of $25 per job) in the past year. Ingogo says that over the next 12 months it will process over $150 million in taxi trips. “Cabcharge processes $1 billion – so we're already processing 15 per cent of their turnover,” he says.
Latecomer Uber won't give numbers, but given its financial backing from Google and others – and its presence in 130 cities globally – it is likely to be competitive.
“Go to Paris, Shanghai or Moscow and you'll find you can use your Uber app there,” says Rohrsheim. “You needn't be shy. The app will translate everything into English.”