‘Many Ola features will soon work offline’

Varun Aggarwal Mumbai | Updated on January 20, 2018 Published on June 30, 2016

ANKIT BHATI, Co-founder and CTO, Ola

CTO Ankit Bhati says drop in fares is bringing in more customers, drivers to its platform

Booking cabs using an app is often a challenge in India given poor network connectivity. In a conversation with BusinessLine, Ola co-founder and CTO Ankit Bhati talks about how the cab aggregator is now trying to solve that problem by making its app consume very little data and introducing features that will calculate the cab fare even if there is no network connectivity. Edited excerpts:

How are you trying to simplify user experience for your customers and drivers, especially when there is no network connectivity?

It’s not a trivial problem to solve. Essentially, we are trying to solve that infrastructure problem by reducing the packet size, making sure that we are consistent, making sure our latency is low and our servers are performing fast enough.

That’s another area of innovation in our lab. A big focus is on right compression and optimisation of payloads.

We are trying to make sure that a lot of decision making can be done offline. So, even if your device does not have network connectivity, the app will still calculate the fare. These are heavy investments for us. We are piloting a lot of things.

You recently replaced surge-pricing notifications with higher per-km charges during peak hours. Many consumers feel it is misleading. What is your view on that?

We are experimenting with peak pricing on multitude of areas — right from how to actually do peak pricing to how it benefits the ecosystem and how to communicate peak pricing.

In terms of communication, this is just our first experiment. Surge pricing was being communicated using the multiplier. But it may not be the best mode because we are actually working with the governments, and they want to push for rate transparency.

So the per-km pricing really helps in that regard.

We are trying out different models — whether to show per-km pricing, what is more conducive for customers, what is more transparent for customers and what is the best way in which we can deliver the value proposition of peak pricing.

Have governments other than those of Delhi and Karnataka raised concerns with peak pricing?

We don’t wait for the governments to have concerns. A lot of our work is to proactively talk to the governments. Peak pricing is not a new concept.

Airlines right now run on peak pricing. The hotel I was staying at was charging thrice the normal charges. Essentially, it is not a new concept, it is something everybody uses.

What is a better experience? A customer not seeing a cab at all, or seeing an expensive cab. It depends on the customer, it is very subjective. We need to do a lot of value trade off.

We interact with the government and tell them how we think of peak pricing or how we think of pricing things dynamically.

Frequent price drops by Uber and Ola have had transportation companies complain about your pricing dynamics. How will such price wars impact the future of the cab business?

Pricing unlocks markets and use cases. It brings in a lot of customers and drivers on the platform and we are nowhere near saturation. And when the two of them are working at that scale, economies of scale come into the picture.

‘Shuttle’ is much cheaper than cabs. ‘Share’, similarly, has a very low price point. With this influx of drivers and customers with the scale of our platform, we are actually able to squeeze out more efficiency and support the pricing we offer.

I don’t see it as a burden. You need to be able to provide as cheap transportation as possible.

A lot of your previous experiments, such as Ola Café and Ola Store, were shut within a year. What were the reasons and would you be looking at relaunching them or other similar products?

We stopped them because of the reason we stop any other experiment. We got the result; we tested the hypothesis we wanted to test.

We started Café and Store to figure out how those kind of logistical products will work in Ola’s ecosystem.

The experiment served its purpose and we’ll take the learnings and apply them in future in whichever way and form we can.

But would you look at going beyond your core service?

Shuttle is a different category, if you look at it. Our publicly stated vision is mobility for a billion people. When you’re doing anything for a billion people, you need a lot of harmony.

Our bouquet of services gets us heavy utilisation of our assets.

Then we have price points of Micro, Mini, Prime, Share and Luxury.

A big infrastructure of transportation exists in autorickshaws and kaali peelis (black-and-yellow taxis). We don’t want to sweep them away because we can use that infrastructure.

You have alliances with Didi Chuxing in China and Lyft in the US. Do these alliances help you get access to different technologies and solve problems?

Ola is a very experimental company. Working with Didi and Lyft means we don’t have to do all these experiments ourselves. They are trying a lot of things in their home grounds and have their own learnings. For example, in China, how are they using local context to serve customers better. We love to take these kind of learning from them.

The learnings come in every shape and form. It comes in business model, business understanding — how are they looking at the business, how are they evolving the product, how are they investing in technology, how are they doing data science, mapping, geo-location.

It boils down to helping each other and not making the same mistake.

Published on June 30, 2016
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