Why Bird Interests Me. And No Not That Way

I have been hearing about Bird for a few months and have often wondered what was all the buzz about. I wanted to see the product up close, to try and figure out the reasons for all the excitement. And that happened this past weekend when three Birds showed up mysteriously outside our residential building. And finally, it all made sense — though, not in the way you would expect.

Bird is one of the hottest startups around — it just raised $100 million — and it just launched in San Francisco and Washington DC It was started by Travis VanderZanden, a former VP at Yammer, who started Cherry, sold it to Lyft, and then left to work for Uber.

Bird makes dockless electrified scooters that till a decade ago were viewed as toys for kids, but are now being viewed as yet another urban mobility solution. It has been amazing to see many companies pop-up and offering a cleaner option to Uber for short rides. Bird is one of the many dockless scooters and bike startups such as LimeBike, Ofo, Mobike and Jump that are also competing for the same riders!

I live in SOMA district of San Francisco, which is heavy on tech crowd and startups. It was no surprise to see people zipping around on these with flagrant disregard for pedestrians. These scooters are illegal to ride on the pavements, but since when have civic duties been part of any growth hack? (I will leave others to pick up that fight.) But even I was surprised by the sheer number of people using the service from the new kid on the block. I wondered if this was a fad like on-demand parking startups of 2018 or was it part of something real. The opinion was split!

A few years ago Chris Anderson, former editor of Wired made an astute observation that we are going to see a lot of ideas benefit from the smartphone boom. He called it the “peace dividend of the smartphones.” Falling GPS prices, sliding costs of accelerometers, modems, radios, and whatnot has made it possible for startups to experiment with different ideas.

And that is what I find interesting about Bird, and its brethren is the technology inside the scooters and the bikes. The scooters are made my Xiaomi or MiniMotors and are mostly powered by a cheap smartphone that has 3G connection capabilities and is GPS-enabled for folks to find and unlock these units. Of all these companies, I am most impressed by Jump (from Social Bicycles of Brooklyn) — which has an onboard solar charging unit, a locking system and a bike that is not heavy (like the FordGo) and easy to ride. I have tried it a couple of times and liked the experience.

For nearly two decades, I have been writing about the impact of computing, connectivity, and density of connections on society. We have put a digital heartbeat in a lot of products — some intelligent, and some dumb. Some ideas are saving money and having a massive impact; others are lying at the back of the storage spaces, below last year’s clothes and old furniture.

For the longest time, computers have been associated with work. Mainframes were for the Army, government agencies, and then large companies. Workstations were for engineers and software programmers. PCs were initially for other white-collar jobs. Now we can take that processing power, shrink it down, and put it in cars, thermostats, lightbulbs, and music systems. People are using Raspberry Pi and Arduino kits to make intelligent toys, lamps, alarm clocks, picture frames, and small robots. Those billions of connected devices will be nearly invisible, low-power computers whose primary job will be to gather data from sensors. (From my column in the January 2-15 issue of FastCompany)

I am not sure if dockless scooters and bikes will amount to a massive overhaul of our urban transportation infrastructure. For now, like Uber, they have added clutter and chaos to the civic infrastructure. (Remember those mountains of bikes heaped high in China?)

A letter from Om

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