In the US and Europe, Uber’s issues are more of the lawyerly type. It fights to maintain surge pricing, its status as a platform and not an employer, and its right to operate in certain cities and airports. In growing markets—places like India, Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa—its challenges are a bit more basic. How can it connect riders, especially those operating old, slow, and data-limited phones, to drivers?
Today, Uber announced the release of a new app, Uber Lite, to help answer that essential question in essential markets. Uber Lite is like Uber, but smaller and less razzle-dazzle-y. At 5 MB (about the size of two photos) and with 300-millisecond response times, this is an app built with older, data-limited Androids in mind, and for places where internet connections are spotty-to-nonexistent. For now, Uber Lite will only be available in three Indian markets (Jaipur, Hyderabad, and Delhi), but will expand to other countries before the end of the year.
To put it another way: Uber Lite is an app to help Uber conquer developing markets. And to smash the competition, starting with homegrown Indian ride-hailer Ola. (Ola released its own, 1 MB Lite app in late 2017.) It’s an increasingly common move: Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Skype all offer Lite apps.
As the American unicorn preps for IPO sometime in 2019, it’s looking for ways to exit unprofitable markets and double down in those where it could make money. The company might be valued at $62 billion, but it lost $312 million in the first quarter of 2018, before accounting for interest, taxes, and other expenses. It has burned through more than $10 billion since founder Garrett Camp conceived of the business while struggling to find a cab in the very first hours of 2009.
So Uber relinquished China to Chinese ride-hail giant Didi Chuxing. In late 2017, it officially merged its Russian business with local competitor Yandex. In April, Uber exited seven Asian countries, ceding that territory to the Singaporean ride-hail company Grab. (That deal gave Uber a 27.5 percent stake in Grab.) Observers split over Uber’s India strategy, but it’s looking very clear now: The ride-hail company is in India to stay, mindful of its deep unprofitability there, but eying the 150 million new smartphone users set to come online by 2022.
Uber says it used the opportunity to rethink the app experience for new Indian users. “One of the things we found in our research interviews is there were riders who said, ‘I don’t know how to use Uber—it’s too complicated for me. My son does it for me,” says Peter Deng, who oversees rider product at the company. So, gone are the integrations with Uber Eats, Uber Bike, and Snapchat, plus the credit card offers and driver promotions that American users might find when they tap the sorta backwards “C” icon on their smartphones. Uber Lite app opens with a simple prompt: “Where are you going?”
Deng says the company’s team—some of whom work in Uber’s India engineering and research center in Bengaluru—were careful to design an app that could be easily used on small screens. It focuses on taps, not typing, by suggesting local points of interest as destinations, and then learning your most visited locations.
Uber Lite also does not automatically load the data-hungry map, which shows your ride inching its way toward (or somehow, away from) you. Instead, Lite will give you an ETA for your driver, and once you’re inside the car, for the trip’s end. Users can still open the standard map, with a tap. This slimmed down version of the app still offers the support and safety features you get in the full version.
If the Lite gambit works, it could keep Uber competitive with Ola, which is available in more than 100 Indian cities. (Uber is only in 30.) Competitive in India, at least. Elsewhere, Ola is bringing the fight to Uber. Earlier this year, the company expanded into Australia, where Uber has operated since 2015.
Uber Lite will expand in the months ahead, Uber says, so keep your eye on other big, competitive markets, like Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East. There, Uber is set on a fresh collision course with an old friend, Didi.