Business & Tech

New app gives Uber a little disruption of its own

Urbanhail allows users to compare prices of different ride-hailing services

The urbanhail app as displayed on an iPhone.
Katherine Taylor for The Boston Globe
The urbanhail app as displayed on an iPhone.

Uber Technologies Inc. built a big business by pushing past regulations that limit competition with taxis. But the tech-industry darling isn’t always happy with smaller companies trying similar tactics.

A group of five Harvard Business School students is fighting Uber’s demand to stop displaying the ride-hailing service’s prices next to competitors’ in a new app, a clear violation of Uber’s rules for tapping into its fare-price data.

The young entrepreneurs behind that new app, called urbanhail, think Uber’s policy keeps consumers from easily finding the best price. And the students say they’ve been encouraged by professors at Harvard Business School, setting up a clash between a bastion of the business establishment and the most revered disruptor of the new tech era.

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“We got advice to move forward,” urbanhail cofounder Rocky Lipsky said. “Ironically, citing Uber as an example.”

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In a statement, Uber said it needs to establish “guardrails” around the use of its application programming interface, or API, that can “preserve the integrity of the Uber experience for users across all apps.”

“We value the time and energy that developers invest by building with the Uber API and actively support and encourage them to be creative and innovate with us,” the company said.

Urbanhail emerged from a class that requires first-year business school students to develop an experimental new business with a handful of peers. Lipsky’s cofounders are Abdulaziz AlBassam, Andrea Heckbert, Amber James, and Hillary Maxwell.

As users of Uber and Lyft, the students were familiar with the intricate smartphone dance involved in finding the lowest fare: Fire up one app, plug in your destination, and repeat.

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But the companies also allow third-party software developers to tap into their data to build new apps. So urbanhail decided to collect fare costs and pickup time estimates from both companies on one screen, allowing consumers to look for the cheapest ride before choosing between Uber and Lyft.

Other apps have tried similar ideas, but none has become a household name. Zailoo, for example, offers essentially the same service as urbanhail. RideScout ties together public and private transit into a single app but doesn’t include Uber or Lyft.

May 5, 2016 - Harvard Business School (HBS) HBS students that created Urbanhail stand for a portrait at HBS from left to right: Andrea Heckbert, 28 2017 Rocky Lipsky, 27 years old and graduating in 2017 Amber james, 26 years old and graduating in 2019 (HBS/HLS) Hillary maxwell, 27 years old and graduating in 2017 Abdulaziz AlBassam, 26 years old and graduating in 2017 Uber hits back at a group of HBS students who created an app, Urbanhail, to compare prices of ride sharing services business, 06uber, woodward (Katherine Taylor for The Boston Globe) Globe
Katherine Taylor for The Boston Globe
Andrea Heckbert, Rocky Lipsky, Amber James, Hillary Maxwell, and Abdulaziz AlBassam developed urbanhail for one of their Harvard Business School courses.

Nonetheless, urbanhail’s founders said the idea was the clear winner when they were brainstorming what kind of company to start. They started work at the end of January and hired a contract developer to build the app. It went live April 19.

The company publicly announced its service Monday in a blog post on BostInno. A few hours later, urbanhail got an e-mail from Uber employee Chris Messina, noting that Uber’s developer terms explicitly forbid using its data “in any manner that is competitive to Uber.”

“We’re more than happy for you to continue developing your app, but ask that you remove any features that list Uber’s prices next to our competitors,” Messina wrote. “Please let us know if you have any questions. Thanks!”

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The fact that Uber’s terms of use clearly prohibit developers from listing Uber fares next to competitors’ was a concern, but Lipsky said Harvard Business School professors suggested the students should push ahead — much in the style of Uber before them.

Screen Shot
A screenshot of the urbanhail app.

“The piece of advice we got there was to move forward and say, ‘This is what companies do when they first enter a disruptive industry,’ ” she said.

The students also contacted lawyers, both on their own and through Harvard’s Rock Center for Entrepreneurship. Those experts all cast doubt on the legality of Uber’s contract terms, Lipsky said.

“They looked into it and said this is obviously a controversial issue, but we think there are serious antitrust issues here,” she said.

It’s not clear how long the urbanhail experiment will last. But Lipsky said she and her cofounders are not planning to give up on the project just because the semester is ending in a few weeks. They’re currently talking with Fasten, a Boston-based app that offers an Uber-like service, about integrating with the urbanhail price comparison app.

“We’re feeling incredibly motivated,” Lipsky said.

Curt Woodward can be reached at curt.woodward@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @curtwoodward.