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über vs. Uber (nytimes.com)
131 points by mtviewdave on Dec 6, 2014 | hide | past | favorite | 87 comments

It seems to me that this article is conflating two issues that aren't necessarily related in a kind of strange way:

First, the understandable misfortune of the naming conflict, which appears to go beyond just the calling issue (for example the listed suing of the wrong party).

Second, it uses this as a strange segue way to criticize Uber for not having phone support. Now if you believe that Uber should have phone support that's fine -- but its kind of unrelated to this person's troubles. By that I mean, had she happened to not name her company uber, then this wouldn't all of a sudden make their lack of phone support OK right? So if what you want to do is say Uber should have phone support, then this seems like a really strange primary point.

As an aside -- their email support has always been stellar to me, and I actually have the opposite complaint of other companies: I'd PAY to be able to get a prompt < 1 hour email reply from comcast vs. the "intimate interaction" of wanting to break my table when I'm on the phone with a real life person from their team.

If she hadn't named her company über, then we wouldn't have the convenient source of data about people who want to call. Since that data exists, it seems reasonable to write an article about it, and briefly explain at the top how it came to be that we have so many people trying to reach Uber instead reaching the same phone.

But this data is actually useless without context. I actually have no clue if 500 calls since August is a lot -- to be honest my first reaction was that it sounded low compared to my (completely possibly incorrect) notion of how many uber rides must be taking place in New York (Uber's biggest market?). It would have been nice for him to have done some analysis with this supposedly indicative number, for example saying how that represents x% of all rides or something. Instead he focuses on really strange parts of this story. I suppose its an op ed so excusable, but I think there was an insightful possibility here that instead just comes off as some guy who's kind of angry and snarky.

Especially since it sounds like most of the calls were for people who didn't understand how uber works and wanted to pre-book a ride. I'm not sure that it would ever be worth having a listed phone number just so someone could answer and say "actually you can't pre-book, you'll have to buy a smartphone and download the app".

You could set up an automated phone tree for this. I've seen multiple large organizations have phone trees where several paths down the tree leads to an automated answer at the leaf (sometimes you can't even get to a representative once you reach some leaves).

Sure. You could. But there's a big step between it being possible, and being (what the author implies) a moral obligation. In fact, there's probably a big step between it being possible and it being worth it.

If Uber actually got big enough that it became one of the only transportation options, then they might have some kind of moral obligation to setup a phone tree to help people who don't have any other options. But I don't think they're anywhere close to that.

I don't think this is meant to be a piece of persuasive writing - he's not trying to form an argument.

It compares two companies of different eras with the same name, who ran into their doppelgängers because companies founded 15 years ago had telephone numbers and companies founded 6 years ago don't. I think it's gorgeous.

The article is clearly critical of uber and even ends by explicitly saying they should get phone support. It sounds a lot like a piece that is trying to argue for them getting phone support.

Why should über have to bear the costs of Uber's 'business model'?

Clearly some of Uber's customers (and want-to-be customers) want to contact Uber this way. Instead, Uber enjoys having them deflected to some other business to deal with and rationalizes it as 'not in our business model'.

Obviously this is not surprising given the other parts of Uber's 'business model', whereby they attempt to absolve themselves of all kinds of liability by 'contracting' with their workforce (I mean employees) [I mean drivers].

I don't know if Uber has published its 'business model', but I wouldn't be surprised if it was short and to the point: 'Externalize all costs. Internalize all profits.'

über should contact Lyft and ask for a number that they can give callers. If Uber is unwilling to step up and service these customers/providers, then the customers/providers should be sent to someone who will. If Uber objects, über can just say, "It's not our business model to act as your free phone support."

über likely also has a legal claim against Uber for infringing on their rights and marks. Clearly Uber has confused the market if this smaller business is having to handle hundreds of callers trying to reach Uber.

Massive infringement lawsuit with actual + punitive damages is probably in order. Would likely be poetic justice, at least.

And the risk in legal costs of one woman and her small design agency going up against Uber? If it happened, Uber would find a way to milk über completely dry.

Normal, human-sized companies can't go up against venture-backed empires run by people with egos the size of football stadiums because the costs and risks of legal action is so massively stacked in favour of the rich and powerful.

Possibly if über was in the car transportation business. Which they are not.

I'm curious what happens if someone holds a trademark for an unrelated business and then they pivot into a new market. What if she decides she wants to begin to offer rides.. Just curious around trademark law here, any ideas?

For an example of this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apple_Corps_v_Apple_Computer

You file your trademark for a particular type of business - it does not give you the right to practice that business elsewhere.

For example, McDonalds Hardware, a fairly popular Hardware business, does not have the right to open up a McDonalds FastFood restaurant.

I agree with you. I also find it a weak argument because companies aren't obligated to provide great (phone) customer service. I wish everyone had great customer service, but market forces make that a secondary or tertiary priority for many companies. For Uber, I bet they're growing at 10x/year while losing maybe 1% of customers to weak customer service. Why spend resources trying to shrink the 1% to .5% when you can instead try to grow the 10x to 12x?

A tangent: I think you meant "segue" instead of "segue way". I just learned that a few weeks ago.

I agree, the focus of the article seemed to shift halfway through from "man, what an unfortunate name collision" to "uber needs a phone line."

I do appreciate companies that take a stand for "their way" of doing things, especially when it narrows their focus. You don't have to do everything conventional in order to be successful.

If she got calls like "I'll pay someone $1000 for a ride to the airport right now", that might justify Uber hiring people to answer phones. But she doesn't, she gets calls from angry harassed customers and people who don't know they can't schedule future rides. Guess what, Uber doesn't want or need to hear from these people. They've optimized to reach people who make them profit, not who are a time and money sink. Adding a phone number is only down-side for them and they clearly know it.

I'm guessing you don't spend much time talking to customers in your organization.

This is a very shortsighted view. Today's angry or confused customer is potentially tomorrow's evangelist.

I work in customer service (telco) and let me say, you could sort the wheat from the chaff, but there is a lot of chaff.

Lyft should sponsor her voicemail.

Much like domains that live off of mis-spellings, is there a model for grabbing these customers and offering them another service?

What if these ladies started pushing customers elsewhere?

> What if these ladies started pushing customers elsewhere?

I imagine no-umlaut-Uber would retaliate in some kind of distasteful, barely-within-the-bounds-of-the-law way and HN would have its anti-Uber story for next week.

Yes my friend, a multi-hundred-million dollar model. If you would like to learn more about rotator domains, direct navigation and Suggested Results, please visit learnaboutrotatordomainsdiscount.com

Interesting tidbit: it looks like the über folks acquired the http://www.uber.nyc domain recently. The .nyc domain actually started registering this year and the auction for uber.nyc (which I was a part of) ended at $3,200. I was surprised that Uber (the taxi company) didn't try to get it.

It makes sense to me that a Manhattan-based company (über) would want a .nyc domain and a global company like Uber would not. Wouldn't it be confusing for Uber to have different domains in different cities?

Sort of. Uber's profits are extremely lopsided, almost all revenues are generated from just 5 cities with NY heading the list with twice as much revenue as the next city.

Given that it makes some sense to try to brand a particular presence in NY. A bit like how a fashion store might want to have a strong presence in Paris. And given NYC alone has a runrate of more than $300m alone, it's not strange to approach this as its own market, just like a company might have a US, UK, JP, DE etc domain for those country markets. Only Uber is more city-segmented than country-segmented right now, each city has its own taxi ecosystem and legislation.

In any case, it'd be an easy redirect and for a company worth tens of billions, outspending a $3k bid to get a branded domain for your company's largest market makes sense. Even if you don't use it, grabbing it and redirecting may be useful. Who knows if its worth much in the future.

So I wouldn't say that grabbing a uber.nyc domain name is the best move ever but it's not strange given the context. I'd have done it.

Except that Uber's current funding and valuation depends on them taking over the taxi market globally, not just in NYC. Branding themselves as an NYC taxi firm wouldn't give the right message to investors and the media at all.

The essay writer really doesn't seem to comprehend the decision Uber is making, or the reasons behind it. It's the model Google used to build Adwords, scalability by refusing to implement anything that requires massive call centers, not the Comcast model of trying to minimize the cost of having hundreds of thousands of employees.

Uber should work with this woman to take action to avoid an externality of their business model: the harm of her getting spammed by Uber customers. But that has nothing to do with implementing phone support.

(Maybe a number for Uber support that leads to an automated prompt, "We don't have phone support, please email us?")

For uber the car company, press 1?

1 "We're sorry, Uber the car company does not take calls. Please email us or give up in frustration."

Lyft should register a phone number for über in every city they compete with Uber in, and offer their services. It's the sort of sharp elbows competition that Uber would certainly do.

An Uber competitor should make a deal with the owner of the phone number.

I've had similar via a Google Voice phone number and people thinking they were calling some ride service; I wasn't able to figure out if it was an airport share-shuttle, a towncar service, or what.

Every so often it'd ring: "Hi, you're supposed to pick me up from the airport?" or similar.

I ended up not needing that particular Google Voice number as I had thought, so... to whoever has that phone number now, I've been there.

I don't understand why this is an opinion piece. What exactly is the point? That companies somehow have a moral obligation to provide phone support (you'll find many people who disagree)?

If the author personally wants to phone support, he can stick to companies which provide it. Let the market decide (hint: phone support won't win).

"I don't understand why this is an opinion piece."

"you'll find many people who disagree"

It almost is an opinion piece because you will find many people who disagree. http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/opinion...:

"Opinion piece: An article in which the writer expresses their personal opinion, typically one which is controversial or provocative, about a particular issue or item of news"

It's funny that the article mentions that the Amazon phone number "isn't hard to find"; I remember that they used to be the poster child (poster company?) for obscurantism in that respect. See, for example, http://amazoncustomerservice.blogspot.com/2007/12/8.html. (Actually, although I agree that it's not hard to Google, a few idle clicks on the Amazon page—including to Help > Contact Us—didn't immediately turn it up there.)

When I click "contact us", it gives me a page that says:

"How would you like to contact us?" and gives me 3 options:

1) E-mail

2) Phone

3) Chat

If you choose phone, you can have them call you, or you can call their number. It may seem convoluted, but since you are able to choose your order and issue you would like to discuss, the amazon representative calling you doesn't have to go through all the verification nonsense and looking up orders and such silly steps.

> It may seem convoluted, but since you are able to choose your order and issue you would like to discuss, the amazon representative calling you doesn't have to go through all the verification nonsense and looking up orders and such silly steps.

You are right that these are advantages, and I'm OK with it; but notice that you have to be logged in (or enter your password) to see these options. It seems to me that requiring you to be logged in to find the phone number is still at least a bit ridiculous.

I am not exactly sure what the lesson is here. It's just another negative piece about the impersonal and cutthroat business practices of Uber. Yet in spite of all the negative press the company is valued at $40 billion and continues to grow. In the presence of alternatives like Lyft and even just regular cabs which are almost always cheaper than Uber why do people continue to use Uber?

Because the market is so inefficient and taxis are so terrible that a company somewhat more efficient and somewhat less terrible can make lots of money and have only one real competitor.

If a market is ripe for disruption, we shouldn't believe that the first company that comes along is efficient and running well. Quite the opposite, since it has so much room not to be and still be successful.

I think that we have a case of 'silent majority' at work (of which I'm a part of).

Chattering classes may yap all day about how Uber is bad - while millions of customers are extremely happy with the service they receive.

However our level of motivation is starkly different. I am happy using the service - and don't really care enough to write letters / articles defending them. Journalists / taxi lobbyists are vastly more motivated to push a different narrative.

I find the taxi business to be impersonal and cutthroat. They under pay their drivers, they offer the least service for the most money, and they will often rip you off if you let them. My mother-in-law got taken for a ride because she's a gullible old woman who didn't know that two miles was two miles, between her pick-up and our house, and this cabbie took her in circles and charged her way higher than he should have.

If it were Uber, he'd get one star and a complaint and probably would never get any more riders.

But since it's Yellow Cab, he just pockets the money and laughs all the way to the bank.

Yeah, there's plenty of need for competition in this overly regulated racket of a business.

I wish airplanes were as cheap as cars, and then maybe we could have an Air Uber as well, to give the airline racket a run for their money!

The company is valued at $40 billion because people have forgotten what happened in the last bubble.

Except that Lyft apparently doesn't have a listed phone number either. I guess i don't see how that's a downside. It sounds like most of the calls were from people who wanted to book a car in advance. It might not make sense for either company to have a phone number and pay someone to answer it all day just to answer the occasional call from someone who doesn't know how the service works.

Because taxis don't have a well-working reputation system to encourage good service and weed out the bad cabbies, and because I very much enjoy the convenience of hailing a car with a couple quick taps in an app.

The solution is simple - make a deal with Lyft and redirect the customers to them for a fee.

> It conveys, she told me recently, both a European sensibility


Now that the Germans have been firmly put in their place as the footstools of the Anglo-Saxons, it's safe and trendy to orientalise aspects of their culture and language.

> Here’s a suggestion: Hire some people who will answer the phone.

Lucky a $40 billion company has some hack at the NYT to give them advice.

Pet hate: When a company specifically doesn't want people X as customers, X thinks it's because said company is dumb. A great example of 'unconscious incompetence'.


In truth, I had the same reaction and I expect the downvoters are unacquainted with the associations to Nietzsche's concept of ubermench and its appropriation by the Nazi's as well as the phrase in the German national anthem "Deutschland uber alles" which was mistranslated intentionally by the allies for propaganda purposes (per Wikipedia: German grammar is sufficiently precise to distinguish "über alles" i.e. above everything (for me), from "über allen", meaning "above everyone else". The latter misleading translation was purposely chosen by the Allies during the First World War for propaganda purposes.)

Anyway, because of those associations, my view of Uber the company is that it has chosen to market itself for those better than the unwashed masses, the rabble, the hoi polloi. This may of course have not been their intent with their marketing, but that, FWIW, is where I go unconsciously when I hear the name.

Also keep in mind the historical context: The lyrics where written as a poem in 1841 and go on like "wenn es stets [...] bürderlich zusammenhält" (if it always sticks together brotherly), to encourage the German states (Austria, Prussia, Bavaria etc.) to unite as they will be "über alles" and survive against France only if they do so.

Nevertheless the first verse describes the old borders, and the second mentions German women along with wine and singing, and would therefor today be killed by gender activists anyway :D

Is "gender activists" the new phrase to use when insulting strawman (strawwoman?) feminists?

I don't know. I did not want to insult anyone, so I avoided the general term "feminist", because not all of them want to enforce every aspect of gender-neutral language, which can be quite annoying in a language like German, where everything has a gender. Of course this case (listing women next to wine and singing) is quite extreme.

For the record, I don't think you succeeded in not insulting anyone.

That is too bad. But if you try hard enough, you can feel insulted every time someone says something. So I suppose it is not really possible to succeed, especially on this topic.

If everything German reminds you of the Nazis, you're going to have to get used to being reminded of the Nazis an awful lot.

And that's on you, not people who use German words.

I didn't have the same reaction, but I get the reference. Quoting Wikipedia:

>The term Übermensch was used frequently by Hitler and the Nazi regime to describe their idea of a biologically superior Aryan or Germanic master race;[13] a form of Nietzsche's Übermensch became a philosophical foundation for the National Socialist ideas. Their conception of the Übermensch, however, was racial in nature.[14][15] The Nazi notion of the master race also spawned the idea of "inferior humans" (Untermenschen) which could be dominated and enslaved; this term does not originate with Nietzsche.

So every time you read "over" you think of overlord?

That might be true for someone who didn't speak much English and was very familiar with the Allied invasion of Normandy.

You think so?

I speak German and travel around the world quite a bit, German is probably the language I use the least, by far.

I use Spanish and English a lot, in Africa with English and French you can get by. In Asia you find written Chinese a lot(common to China, Japan, and Korea), English in India(so many languages there).

In most cases, this should actually cause bad reputation for the countries, these languages originated. The difference is, that England and other countries glorify things, they fucked up in the past.

This is a particularly disgusting instance of Germanophobia. I guess that tens of millions of people use the German language every day makes you uncomfortable, as well?

There are some German terms that have taken on a particularly distinctive significance in terms of the Nazi era, like Lebensraum, Endlösung, ausrotten, Anschluss, even if they have a more generic literal meaning. (That's true of terms in other languages that have a strong connection to other historical events too.)

I don't find that the preposition über has such an association for me -- maybe because I've used it in day-to-day contexts when speaking German as a foreign language, like "nach Hamburg über Zürich fliegen" -- but someone upthread pointed out that it may remind some people of Nietzsche's Übermensch, an idea that the Nazis associated with their concept of the Herrenvolk.

It's possible for some people to perceive a connotation that others don't perceive at all. I was working with some Brazilians on a document that used the term "solução final" as a non-Nazi reference, to mean something like 'definitive solution' or 'complete solution'. I strongly urged them to change the term to avoid the unintended Holocaust reference, but they assured me that Brazilians in their circles used that term completely neutrally, and that readers wouldn't take any reference to the Holocaust at all.

There are certain words (particularly Führer on its own) and phrases that modern Germans avoid due to Nazi associations, but Anschluss is absolutely not one of them. It's a common, general term.

Nor is "ausrotten", at least not in its literal meaning. I'm not sure about how appropriate its use for the figurative meaning is, but its connotations are pretty violent regardless of its Nazi use.

Thanks for the clarifications, I probably should have drawn clearer distinctions.

That's kind of saying you don't like bikinis because of [1]...

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Crossroads

Better not ask anyone to "concentrate," because that would be a transparent and villainous reference to concentration camps.

As a native speaker, it sounds nothing but cheesy or big-headed to me in a company name but if your connotation makes you afraid you should stay away from using some italian prepositions as well.

In addition to it being super cheesy and cringe worthy to me as a native speaker how am I supposed to pronounce it when I am speaking German?

If say Uber I sound like an idiot that can't pronounce the ü.

Another German chiming in: Please stop using foreign words. I won't buy the keyboard and label everyone that does as .. weird. I would never enter a contract with a company that thinks the word über is cool (it is not) but is unable to write it ('schade').

Just.. don't. Occasional German references in English contexts are usually cringeworthy. Uber is ridiculous from this particular point of view, just because their name is absolutely useless. Unless you're trying to make the xth Nazi reference and think that German sounding bull.,.. might so the trick, please reconsider. The shop in this article at least knew then spelling and had a decent explanation. The other (HN loved) company is just... sad. I would suport the real über if they offer a way. Uber? Ridiculous, even before this article. But hey, who cares about the language you steal your laughable name from, right?

Uber isn't a German word. It's (originally) a colloquial word in some (American) English sociolects. It's based on German "über" and started as a loanword, but like many such words it has taken on an entirely unrelated meaning of its own.

I'm pretty sure I've seen "uber" (with either spelling but pronounced in English) on the web and on IRC as early as the 1990s. It likely spread beyond the online use when the web became mainstream.

Disclaimer: German native speaker who used to spend way too much time around linguists.

Yeah, Wiktionary calls the English loanword (without umlaut) /ˈuːbər/ and the German /ˈyːbɐ/. I think it's been a fairly ironic productive prefix in some people's informal English for a while, often hyphenated, like "uber-cool", "uber-interesting", ?"uber-dangerous". (Latin "super" is cognate with German über as well as Greek "ὑπέρ" (hyper)!)

Yes, its use is pretty similar to super/mega in German.

And you can't mention the German "super" in 2014 without pointing out this viral marketing campaign: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jxVcgDMBU94 (explanation: http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2014/02/24/supergeil_ede... )

Playing devil's advocate here, but couldn't the company have picked its name from the Latin ubertas? (https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/ubertas)

This, too. The point is that "Uber" by virtue of being a proper name in English is entirely unrelated to the German word "über", even if that may be where its etymological roots lie. This is a perfectly natural process.

I mean, you wouldn't catch anyone on German television pronounce Zuckerberg's name as /ʦʊkɐbɛɐk/, even if it may be of German (Jewish, I presume?) origin.

PS: I think the Duden and Wiktionary are full of shit -- I've never heard anyone in Germany pronounce "Berg" with an actual "r". Maybe I'm missing some subtleties of German phonetic transcription here, but that's an /ɛɐ/ diphthong if I've ever seen one.

I'm against companies taking over simple words. I think Uber is worse than Apple. Apple is a common noun. In German über is a common modifier. Much more confusing than adopting a noun. I don't think it would fly if Uber started in Germany so I don't appreciate them using the name in English-speaking countries to get started, and having it expand.

Laughable names are what we do in Sillicon Valley. Our biggest companies are named after a child's gurgle (Google) and a "crude or brutish person" (Yahoo). The more laughable your company's name is, the better off you are. It's like wearing something really unfashionable in public. If you can pull it off, you must have confidence.

i thought google was derived from googol, as in the large number.

Since the company name themselves uber without umlauts, there is not really a reason to spell it with ü, it's not a german word anymore. Still, I pronounce uber as über when speaking in german because it does sound idiotic otherwise.

Similarly, as I'm currently living in Latin America, I got used to pronounce english words and names in a spanish way. At first it feels very stupid, but locals will understand you better and you don't have to suddenly switch language flow and phonology in the middle of a sentence.

> Similarly, as I'm currently living in Latin America, I got used to pronounce english words and names in a spanish way

As a native English speaker who can speak decent Spanish, this was a very interesting experience for me as well. Getting used to saying your own language's words with another language's accent is very instructive. Also hearing English words with a thick Spanish accent was a bit of a head trip for me - at first you don't even recognize them when spoken to you, then after a while you sort of "get" the phonetics enough that you can think of the words as sounding like that.

All in all one of the more interesting aspects of learning to speak a language competently, or alternatively, something that makes the difference between sounding like some American kid in a Spanish class and making a real effort.

In my opinion phonetics are way underrated in language learning, especially with those learning it on the go while traveling.

I always encourage other travelers to focus on pronunciation and getting rid of ones native language accent right from the start. Not to sound more skilled than you are or to hide your origin, but it is necessary to get into the flow and rhythm of a language, which will in turn improve your listening skills and ability to adapt to different accents of that language immensely.

And in geographically widespread languages like spanish or english you have to adapt a lot. As long as you pronounce things in one major regions accent natives have few problems understanding you, even if you make a lot of grammar mistakes. On the other hand, you can have perfect grammar, but with a really thick e.g. english accent, you're sort of limited to talk to people who also speak english and are able to do that head trip.

German here. Please don't call them "Über" in German. It's an English word, so it sounds wrong to pronounce it any other way than either in English (i.e. /uːbər/) or English-as-if-it-were-German (i.e. /uːbɐ/ vs. über /yːbɐ/).

Yes, but consequently, you'd have to pronounce the cities of e.g. Spain and France or the Swiss breakfast invention Müesli correctly as well instead of adapting them to German.

In my opinion beeing understood is more important than beeing correct and whatever people adapt to is ok in my book. I even learned to tolerate the horrid ways north americans pronounce places in latin america. Languages change and mix all the time. For the good and the bad. I just don't care enough about uber, and I'll just stick to the way people pronounce it once I'm back to Switzerland.

"Uber" is perfectly pronounceable in German (I even gave a phonological example: /uːbɐ/). If umlauts weren't frequently stripped in English, there would be no reason to assume "uber" should be pronounced in any other way than how it is spelled, except hypercorrection (in other words: saying it wrong).

I'm not saying the word shouldn't be adapted at all, quite the opposite. I'm saying "correcting" the pronunciation to the one of the original German word it is historically based on is a bit silly because the English meaning of "uber" -- while the word itself may be derived from German "über" -- is actually quite specific and entirely different.

Now that I think about it, your "Müesli" example actually backfires. In (German) German, where "Müsli" has become a generic description for nearly any mix containing oats and milk (basically what you'll find on the German Wikipedia), the original Swiss word Müesli is often used with a much narrower and more specific meaning (equivalent with the original meaning of Birchermüesli, I think).

But anyway, for consistency I demand that you refer to Apple as Apfel (or Apful, if you want to stick with the original Old High German) and Microsoft as Mikrosanft (or -sacht? Etymology is a bit harder with this one) in spoken German, too.

This is literally the stupidest comment that I've seen on HN in my several years of browsing this site.

If you're a troll, congratulations.

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