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

Rick Robinson
The Startup
Published in
6 min readMay 12, 2019

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…

Rick Robinson
The Startup

thedictum.com … BBS Magazine then 10 yrs at AOL, Webs.com, Sprint, NatGeo, startups like Urgent.ly, Politico and now AARP Innovation Labs.