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Travelling to the Future, on the Internet

Blurb:

Back in 1993, cyberpunk author William Gibson famously said, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” That rolling prediction is constantly true, and it’s something I deal with regularly as I trade between the physical world and my life online. As you know, I live in Ithaca, a tremendously pleasant small city in upstate New York that has been ranked #1 among America’s best college towns, the #1 smartest city in America, #3 of U.S. cities for work-life balance, and #1 for “prime workforce growth,” among much else.

Despite the positive influence of Cornell University and Ithaca College, technology is particularly unevenly distributed here. Internet access can be slow and cell service spotty in the surrounding areas, numerous acquaintances still don’t do texting (much less own smartphones), and only in the past few years has it become feasible to organize social events purely via email. Location-based social networking services are laughable here – while testing one on a warm summer evening on the Commons (a heavily frequented pedestrian mall), I never saw another user on the service, but ran into six separate acquaintances in 20 minutes of wandering around.

As a result, trips to big cities for me are like travelling into the future – I get to see and experience how things will be once the technology becomes more evenly distributed to smaller cities and towns. This year’s Macworld/iWorld in San Francisco gave me a particularly clear glimpse of what’s to come. If you’re already living in New York or London, Sydney or Seattle, you’ll probably read this smugly, and think, “Yep, I’m a veritable George Jetson. Now where’s my flying car?” On the other hand, if you’re somewhere a little smaller, or just not the sort to try every new thing that comes down the pike, I have a future to distribute to you, since all of these services and products are available here and now.

Airbnb — I’ve been to every Macworld Expo in San Francisco since 1992, and apart from the very first one, when I stayed with a high school friend living in Oakland, I’ve done the hotel thing. This year, however, Tonya and I looked at the rates for the smaller hotels around Moscone Center and decided to try something a little different: Airbnb. For less than the cost of a hotel, we were able to stay in some guy’s apartment less than a block from Moscone for three nights. It wasn’t a large apartment, and it was full of his stuff, but it was clean, quiet, and far more spacious than any hotel room we could afford. We never met him at all, which is a little uncommon with Airbnb, but a little Googling revealed that he was Cambridge-educated Brit working at a nearby Internet startup.

Airbnb is a fascinating service. Founded in 2008, it provides a structure within which normal people can rent out lodging, ranging from a bedroom in a house to a full house, and extending all the way up to castles, boats, tree houses, tipis, igloos, and private islands. In our experience, though, it mostly ends up being a cross between staying in a B&B and crashing with a friend. It lacks the anonymity and generic nature of hotels, which can be good or bad, depending on what you’re looking for, and it’s often easier to find an inexpensive or more convenient place to stay via Airbnb. When Tonya visits her sister and infant niece, who live in a residential neighborhood in a suburb of Boston, there are no hotels within walking distance, and she’s looking only for a place to sleep undisturbed by a fitful baby, so Airbnb rooms have been both close by and economical.

One thing that sets Airbnb apart from hotels is that the people renting out their rooms or houses get to choose who stays with them, and both parties rate the other afterwards, with those ratings being recorded for others to see when evaluating places to stay or potential guests. It’s also perhaps the first time that having a Facebook profile has actually been useful, since the people with rooms could check out Tonya, see roughly how old she was, where she went to college, and so on, and decide if she was a good fit.

Airbnb is embroiled in some controversy at the moment, because hotels don’t like the competition and are upset that Airbnb hosts don’t have to meet the same safety and accessibility regulations and aren’t paying the same taxes. Plus, in some locations, local zoning laws prevent short term sublets, and landlords have taken the opportunity to evict some tenants who were renting out their apartments. My personal take is that Airbnb hosts should be held to certain safety standards (such as posting evacuation routes in case of fire) and should be responsible for the same local taxes, but full on safety and accessibility regulations are overkill for private residences. I suspect it will all be worked out over the next few years.

Find My Friends — We’re fond of Find My Friends at home, though here it’s more Find My Family, since we share locations with our son, Tristan, and our parents, and it’s occasionally extremely helpful. But we’ve long felt as though we’re missing out on the hip mobile lifestyle enjoyed by city dwellers, and indeed, spending time at Macworld/iWorld in San Francisco showed just how location could be used in an urban environment.

All the members of the TidBITS staff who were at the show shared their locations for the duration of the show, and while it wasn’t terribly helpful in the depths of Moscone, whenever we were trying to get together for a meal, it was tremendously handy to have not just messaging, but also a clear picture of where everyone was. That enabled estimates on how many people to reserve a table for, how long it would take for people to arrive at a restaurant, and so on.

As useful as Find My Friends is, the interface in the iOS 7 version is terrible, particularly for temporary events, and I’m looking forward to the enhancements promised for iOS 8, where you’ll be able to set up a group conversation and then share your location with everyone in that conversation. That should be a much more direct and convenient way of gathering a number of people with minimal fuss.

Sidecar — Much as Airbnb has disrupted the traditional hotel industry by allowing individuals to rent out their own homes, a trio of car services are disrupting the traditional taxi business. Uber, Sidecar, and Lyft all allow individuals to set themselves up as informal taxis, responding to requests made via smartphone apps, and taking payments through those apps. Uber is the main company in this arena, with service in TKTK cities, whereas Sidecar and Lyft are smaller and slightly cheaper competitors. Since Lyft cars sport huge pink mustaches, we decided to give Sidecar a try when we had to get across San Francisco for a family dinner.

URLs for all three

Downloading the Sidecar app and signing up with the service took a little time, and wasn’t difficult but needed to be done in advance. Then, when we were ready to leave, we entered the address of the restaurant we wanted to go to, and were presented with a list of nearby Sidecar drivers, each showing with car type and other details. We picked Gina, who drove a 2011 white Toyota Camry and had extremely positive ratings across thousands of rides. The app told us how long she’d be (3 minutes), how much the ride would cost ($10), and what her car looked like (essential in the hubbub of San Francisco rush hour). It also provided a button for calling her, which turned out to be handy, since we had a slight confusion about which side of a busy street we were on and needed to chat to find each other.

Once we got in the car, Gina proved to be a chatty Asian woman who was happy to tell us about what it was like driving for Sidecar – she lived in the East Bay and had been driving for a while to make extra money on evenings and weekends. She said that she particularly appreciated the way Sidecar allowed her to accept or reject rides based on rider reviews as well, since other drivers had had bad experiences with drunks and rowdies. When we arrived at our destination, she wished us well and zipped off to find another ride. No bills changed hands; the Sidecar app prompted us to pay the $10 fee right away, giving the opportunity to bump it up with a tip. I don’t know what happens if you fail to tap the Pay button; I presume the app just pays for you after some amount of time.

These car services have generated their own controversies. Uber, for instance, does what it calls “surge pricing,” where prices go up, sometimes hugely, in areas and times of great demand. Economists love this, since it lets people who are willing to pay do so, theoretically freeing up resources for others who aren’t. But those who were faced with the choice of a hefty bill or finding some other means of transportation that’s slower and less convenient haven’t been happy.

Also troubling has been the way that riders can be pre-screened, but that cuts both ways. There have been allegations of racism, with some drivers refusing to pick up riders whose profile pictures identify them as being black, for instance. But stories also abound of traditional taxis refusing to stop for members of various minorities. And more generally, riders can’t necessarily see their own profiles, which can lead to some unexpected snubs.

OpenTable and Yelp — Neither OpenTable nor Yelp are particularly new, but we find them useful only when in big cities like San Francisco or New York. OpenTable is a restaurant reservation service that we’ve used quite successfully on a number of occasions to arrange our TidBITS staff dinner, where we’re looking for a restaurant that’s appropriate for a small group within walking distance of Moscone Center. You can filter results by price and cuisine, and for each restaurant, look at the menu and reviews from other diners, before making a reservation. Previously, we’ve relied on the OpenTable Web site, but when the issue of where to eat for another dinner meeting came up, Tonya whipped out her iPhone and used the OpenTable app to find a place nearby that had room for us that evening – we felt downright modern.

Whereas OpenTable requires participation from the restaurants, since it has to make a connection with their reservation system, Yelp is an entirely independent service that enables people to rate businesses of all sorts, although the majority appear to be restaurants. Yelp gathers as much information about the restaurant as it can, again presenting it via both a Web site and an iOS app, but it’s most useful in the moment on the iPhone, as an answer to the question, “Where should we eat?,” all mediated through your search query and location and filtered by price, distance, and more. As travellers, we have no idea what places might be good, and although you can’t necessarily trust everything you read in Yelp, you can usually get a sense of whether a restaurant will meet your needs.

As useful as these apps were during our trip, I could easily imagine city dwellers relying on them regularly – in a metropolis like New York City or Chicago, where there are thousands of restaurants that come and go, Yelp and OpenTable would radically change the entire equation when eating out, something that would be all the more common with so many choices.

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