On-demand Rides a Decade Before Uber: Recollections on a Forgotten “Mobile 1.0” Innovation

When data-enabled mobile phones arrived over 20 years ago they promised to extend the wave of Internet adoption beyond the PC to anywhere consumers wanted to roam. Email under the table during boring meetings? sure. Text-based games in the bathroom? why not.

Those of us building those early products realized it wasn’t about creating new behaviors but rather extending them beyond the bounds of an ethernet cable or, gulp, a dial-up telephone line. People wanted to connect, communicate, play, lurk and buy using their computers — so we made that a focus (for me it was as product and content lead for AOL Mobile in 2000), and we saw modest success — the interfaces of the day, at least on U.S. mobile phones, were not the easiest to use.

A view of of a menu in WAP on an early data-enable mobile phone.

But like a lot of things it’s not always about the quality of your product or service, it’s about the timing of its arrival.

After a couple years AOL retreated from mobile ambitions when it was evident nobody was ready to consistently write multi-million-dollar checks for mobile advertising — particularly in the wake of the internet’s bubble exploding, leaving everyone bloodied.

And that’s too bad, because so many things taken for granted today with apps and mobile web have their forgotten roots in “Mobile 1.0,” where (mostly) text-driven progenitors thrived among a small audience of the devoted.

One of those products came from a company we partnered with, answering our desire to offer AOL members the ability to never be lost or stranded again.

E-Hailing Gets its Start

The company was called Qsent, and they were completing a mobile-phone version of a service called iQtaxi that would allow users to navigate menus and tap to have a cab or black car dispatched to their location — this was nearly 10 years before Uber logged its first ride.

Granted, this was also before the days of GPS-positioning in phones so customers were required to do a little more tapping than with today’s apps, but it generally worked. Qsent had already begun negotiations with AT&T Wireless about integration when, in 2001, we began talking to them about a version for AOL Mobile.

“The significance of iQtaxi is immense and far-reaching,” said Qsent Chief Executive Patrick Cox.“This service will forever change how people and businesses are able to access the vast existing taxi, sedan, and limousine industry. It’s never been done before.”

As the Portland Business Journal put it at the time:

Until now, finding transportation has often been an unreliable process, especially for those traveling in an unfamiliar city. With iQtaxi, however, people on the go will easily be able to reserve transportation — by taxi, sedan, or limousine — and receive confirmation instantly. Using an Internet-ready phone, Palm or PC, users will have the ability to “e-hail” their desired form of transportation from anywhere, anytime — even silently during a meeting — and receive an immediate confirmation reply.

Users simply select their pick-up and destination locations from a list of previous entries, or enter a new location on their Web-ready phone, Palm or PC, and enter their scheduled pick-up time. Within minutes, iQtaxi will have reserved transportation and sent confirmation. iQtaxi can be accessed at iQtaxi.com and Palm users can download the Clipping App free from Palm.net. Future versions will process payments securely and easily, and will be able to determine the user’s current location.

At the time, Qsent was a 50-person company that had two main products: a knowledge-based authentication and consumer contact data product called iQ411, and iQTaxi. It later sold to TransUnion. Today the brand carries on as a suite of services for taxi companies.

The Innovator

I caught up with Patrick Cox many years after meeting him and his team in San Francisco to secure our deal. Patrick is now Vice President and GM of TRUSTID, Inc. (a Neustar company which, coincidentally, was recently helmed by Lisa Hook — both president of AOL Mobile and my boss back in 2001).

Patrick Cox led Qsent, a mobile ride-hailing company in 2001.

How did the sort of “Uber of Mobile 1.0” come to be?
The idea for iQTaxi came out of conversations with AT&T Wireless. AT&T wireless was launching a new platform called wireless access protocol (WAP) and they were looking for transactional-revenue based products that could be placed in a top 10 position on the screens of cellphones. iQTaxi was born.

When you created the service did you feel like you were on to something big? Did you think in terms of “on demand?”
Yes, both for increasing the value of the mobile experience beyond phone calls as well as aggregation of transportation on demand. And yes, that [on demand] was the core asset.

Talk about how you pulled off the nationwide service
Qsent secured exclusive contracts with over 600 taxi, limousine and black-car service providers in the U.S. These 600 providers covered the top 40 U.S. markets. The technology consisted of a user requesting a car at their current location. The iQtaxi system either integrated directly with the dispatch system through an API, or if no API was available, iQtaxi had call center agents who were able to contact these car service providers over the phone to make the booking. This telephone approach was the bridge to API development at the major dispatch technology companies.

What was usage like? How many people used the service?
I don’t recall exactly, but it was small — thousands, not hundreds of thousands.

What do you think of Uber and its tremendous success?
I wished I had hung in there long enough to see smartphones come into being. But Seriously… it’s a very cool product. In fact one of my investors called me and said, “hey we had this idea we were just a few years too early…”

Why did you shut the service down after a relatively short time?
WAP just never caught on. WAP was so poorly adopted … Within roughly a year, WAP was discontinued by most major carriers.

And for the next several years, until the launch of iPhone and the app ecosystem (plus GPS), development in mobile products foundered. The early innovators, like Qsent, fell away from memory.

Eight years later Garrett Camp, as told by former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, had a genius idea:

Jamming on ideas, rapping on what’s next is what entrepreneurs do. Garrett and I would get some good music, good drinks and jam until 5am. Garrett’s big idea was cracking the horrible taxi problem in San Francisco — getting stranded on the streets of San Francisco is familiar territory for any San Franciscan. Garrett’s m.o. fits the Uber brand. He likes to roll in style, comfort and convenience. His over-the-top idea in Paris that winter started as a limo timeshare service. I think his original pitch had me and him splitting the costs of a driver, a Mercedes S Class, and a parking spot in a garage, so that I could use an iPhone app to get around San Francisco on-demand. Hilarious! Obviously things have changed quite a bit 😉

The rest, as they say, is history. History both recalled and forgotten.