Service apps bring ease, but also tension

Questioning the tech world's haves and have-nots

Jenna Wortham / New York Times News Service /

Published Sep 30, 2012 at 05:00AM

In San Francisco recently, I was running late for a meeting, desperate for a ride. But no buses or cabs were in sight.

Then I remembered a service called Lyft. I pulled out my smartphone and quickly downloaded the application, which lets regular people act as chauffeurs for a fee. As instructed, I entered my location — then crossed my fingers and waited.

Five anxious minutes later, a clean black Audi pulled up, with a chatty young man at the wheel. I jumped in and we made friendly small talk. I gave him advice for his future trip to New York, and he invited me to a party that night in the city. We reached my destination, and I slid out of my seat, transferred $10 to the service through the Lyft app, and walked into my meeting with a smile.

It was the start of a series of encounters with useful apps providing services in the nick of time. At first, these successes emboldened me. The next day, for example, I found myself in yet another bind. I realized that a booking error had left me without a hotel room in San Francisco for one night. Normally, such a travel glitch would have caused me to panic. But I calmly searched until I found an application called HotelTonight, which shows last-minute rooms available in a particular city. I found and reserved a place to stay, all while drinking iced coffee and sitting outside in a park.

What couldn’t I do, what problems couldn’t be solved, with the tap of an app? A few hours later, I realized that the device I’d brought to supply my laptop with an Internet connection was on the fritz. I needed it for a press event starting bright and early the next day, but I also had to get to an important dinner. But, again, I didn’t have a meltdown. I simply pulled out my phone and found an application called Exec. It quickly matched me with a human assistant who was willing to track down and deliver a replacement, so long as I paid him $25 an hour, which I was quite willing to do.

But a few hours later, the first signs of trouble began. While sitting at the dinner, receiving texts and questions from the patient young man who was buying my mobile hot spot at Best Buy, I started to feel guilty. Was I taking advantage of him? Was I paying him enough? Was my time worth more than his?

No doubt these services are helpful; in all three instances, they were lifesavers. This emerging on-demand economy, made up of a wave of mobile applications and services, is certainly convenient. It is intended to deliver almost anything you need or want with the flick of a finger, if you have a smartphone and the cash to spare. A game changer? Definitely.

But are there murkier issues, about the haves and have-nots in a tech world, lurking just below the surface? I certainly felt uneasy about how simple it was to command an army of mobile helpers via my phone.

My discomfort, it turns out, is not uncommon, according to Justin Kan, the founder of Exec, an online service that provides helpers for a variety of tasks. “I don’t think it comes that naturally to people at first,” Kan said. “There is friction. But when they see other people using it, they will find ways to use it and that it is OK.”

Rachel Botsman, one of the authors of “What’s Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption,” notes that “it can be quite uncomfortable asking a stranger to do something for you, even if you are paying them.” Yet, she says, many people have overcome this aversion.

She cited Airbnb, a service that lets people rent their homes to travelers, for rates comparable to a hostel or hotel, with the company taking a slice of the fee. At first, letting a stranger crash in your spare bedroom may seem hard to imagine — yet, many have found that making extra cash from their homes is appealing enough to join in. And enough travelers have enjoyed the authenticity of staying in someone else’s home to have made the service quite popular. Since 2008, when Airbnb was introduced, it has helped people book 10 million nights in more than 26,000 cities around the globe.

Such services are useful enough that at least some of them will thrive, Botsman said.

“The economics are bigger than the individual,” she said. “This is changing the way things get done. There are massive socioeconomic implications for the unemployed and underemployed.”

She gave the example of a skilled chef who hadn’t been able to secure a culinary job. Through one of these apps, the chef could take quick requests for a caterer or a personal cook, thus getting a foot in the door.

In addition, small businesses, she said, could scale back on staff or even office space by using on-demand services like Exec and TaskRabbit, which also help find people to perform errands on the spot.

“There has always been a demand for people who will do odd jobs,” said Kartik Hosanagar, a professor of online commerce at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “There probably always was a good amount of supply as well, although that supply has increased dramatically since the 2008 recession. However, there wasn’t an efficient way to match supply and demand previously.”

The bigger question is whether these companies can grow beyond their existing markets. Airbnb is in 26,000 cities worldwide, but Lyft and Exec are relatively young companies and currently operate only in San Francisco. “There’s a fundamental issue of intimacy,” said Susan Etlinger, an analyst at the Altimeter Group, who advises companies on how best to use the Web in their business. “Will people feel safe and comfortable on a larger scale? They’ll have to do more of what Airbnb has done, spread the word about how well regulated and managed the service is. But even then, there’s always tension between the person who is the employer and the person who is the employee that could turn users off.”

For consumers, it may be a matter of getting accustomed to the new services, and deciding how useful they are and whether they are worth the cost. I found myself weighing my discomfort against the convenience of being able to vastly increase the number of things I could do in a short time, and all for a relatively small amount of money.

On the final night on that San Francisco trip, for example, I faced yet another crunch. I needed to be in three places at once — buying a new iPhone charger, picking out a birthday present for a friend and meeting friends from college for a drink. I stared at my phone, debating whether to use a mobile app to enlist an assistant for help with the shopping errands.

This time, at least, I decided that I didn’t need the help. I’d deal with the errands at another time. So I put down my phone and headed straight to the bar.