How Uber uses Twilio to define the ‘digital layer’ and redefine telecoms


If you’ve been on one of the main social networks in the past few days, there’s a fair chance you’ll have seen this quote knocking around, originally from a TechCrunch article. “[In 2015] Uber, the world’s largest taxi company owns no vehicles, Facebook the world’s most popular media owner creates no content, Alibaba, the most valuable retailer has no inventory and Airbnb the world’s largest accommodation provider owns no real estate,” it reads.

All very true, but it’s not an especially new revelation. Consumer technology analyst Jan Dawson wrote in December 2014 about “the digital layer” transforming, but not replacing, analog products and services. Dawson cited Uber as an example of this change, a company which is “firmly rooted in the physical world” yet uses digital technology to bring customers and suppliers together.

Uber has been a phenomenal success story and ample proof of this concept in motion. Yet what isn’t quite so well known is its relationship with Twilio, the cloud communications platform which enables Uber to send real time updates to its customers.

It’s hardly surprising that most people are in the dark about this – infact, it’s almost what Twilio wants. A Business Insider article from August had the URL tag “you don’t know you’re using Twilio.” Jeff Lawson, Twilio CEO, tells TelecomsTech: “The fact that many people use Twilio every day, even though they don’t know it, makes us happy.”

Twilio isn’t short on cool customer stories, from Coca-Cola to Sprint and Box. Yet Uber was originally built without the cloud comms provider in tow. It helps, of course, that both companies are headquartered in San Francisco, and Lawson notes how the service quickly gained a foothold, moving from “interesting” to “wow”.

“I don’t know that anybody knew what Uber would become by now,” he explains. “We were the first market for Uber and pretty immediately it became clear that the service was a fantastic one.

“When Uber became clear [about] having other people also use their cars on the network, and the prices became less than taxis, and the ubiquity of these [vehicles] on the road became so high, then I think it opened up to a whole other level,” he adds.

For Uber, real-time cloud communications doesn’t just mean being able to contact the driver directly, or sending an update to say a taxi would be five minutes late. It’s about global expansion as well.

Lawson explains: “Before Twilio, telecommunications was a geo-politically bounded industry. Every country with which you did business had its own set of carriers, its own world. And that meant as you expanded your presence, if you opened up business in a new country, you had to go and do business development with the local carriers to communicate with those customers.”

As Uber is now open for business in 55 countries, there just isn’t enough time to liaise with the local carriers, buy a bunch of phone numbers, wire them up to PBXs and get the data centres to put them in. “I think this is a big part of what we offer Uber, the ability for them to grow at the rate of their ambitions and not be held back by communications infrastructure,” Lawson says.

This overall replacing of dumb technologies for real-time telecommunications is a key part of Twilio’s – and Lawson’s – vision. “We believe that the day is coming in the not too distant future where all of our communications are going to be as contextual and as relevant as the communications that are woven into the experience of using a product like Uber,” he says.

As Dawson notes, this is the key to the success of the ‘digital layer’; it’s not entirely replacing an old value chain, but it replaces a single layer leaving the underlying structure in place. It’s disruptive, but not obtrusively disruptive – and Twilio will hope to continue to redefine communications infrastructure in that manner.

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