Warning: consumer rant disguised as a review follows.
Viman Nagar in Pune tends to be the breeding ground for a lot of up-and-coming startups and restaurants. There’s nothing like a neighbourhood with hundreds of young people whose parents invariably drop 2 lakh a year on tuition to get the entrepreneurial juices flowing. Some of these businesses succeed (like Dunzo and Super Store) and others perish soon (gone but never forgotten, my dear Picantos). Pune in general has several startups, so it makes sense that the consumer-facing ones would start operating in Viman Nagar and surrounding areas.
It was puzzling why dockless bikesharing was never a part of this ecosystem until March 2018. Of course, dock-based systems were anyway out of the question since they are a nightmare to maintain and pay for; so we skipped right to dockless. And thus came Mobycy, a dockless bikesharing startup, fresh from half a million dollars in seed funding. Suddenly, there were tens of these cycles sprinkled around Viman Nagar, parked in designated ‘parking zones’, which were mostly sections of footpaths.
The way the system works is pretty simple. Users walk up to a Mobycy bicycle, fire up the Mobycy app, and scan the bike’s QR code. As soon as they do that, the internet-connected lock on the bike pops open, and the user can just ride to wherever they want to go, and slide the lock shut when they’re done. Simple, right?
Not quite. Something went wrong. (which is also the error message you have to live with every waking hour if you’re using Mobycy.)
The first few times I tried, the app was stuck on the splash screen, and when I tried to force-restart it, nothing changed. And when I gave up and walked away, the app chimed in gleefully through a notification and informed me that the lock had, in my absence, popped open. I then had to rush back to the bike, since it was now my responsibility. Mobycy later told me that there were ‘internet problems’ because of the demand they were receiving. I don’t know to what extent that was true, because the app anyway runs mainly on Google Maps, and the only data that the backend needs to process at any time is this:
— Where are the bicycles in this area, and what are the parking zones? (GPS coordinates sent via text and locally converted into location pins and zone circles displayed on the app)
— What’s the bicycle number that the user wants? (QR code is locally decoded from camera and sent to server as a <10 digit bicycle code)
— Does the user have enough money to pay for this ride? (Paytm balance fetched through partner API)
— Dear bicycle, pop the lock open. (very simple command to the bike — “unlock”. Even behind proprietary software, shouldn’t be a very long string of information)
So yeah, all in all that’s not more than a few kilobytes of information per ride transferred between the user and the backend. That shouldn’t be hard to manage at all, even with 10x as many users as bikes in any given area. This is just poor availability and scaling. Hell, with the kind of errors I was getting (something to do with Java sockets popped up once), it’s highly unlikely that high consumer demand had anything to do with the kind of issues I was facing.
My problems most likely had to do with the fact that I was one of the first people using this product in the real world. Even services that are started on a piloting basis are dogfooded among employees first to squash fairly simple bugs and map out unexpected processes. I see no evidence that Mobycy did this. Most of the problems I faced involved errors connecting to their service; and the poor bikes were left to fend for themselves too, unable to unlock without a command to do so, even though the app had already been instructed to pop the lock open.
When I pointed this error out to Mobycy, they told me to check my internet connection. Of course, I was anyway frantically running other apps like Twitter to make sure that it was just this one app that stubbornly refused to connect. Interestingly, I experienced a higher success rate with Mobycy occasionally with a UK VPN than on my raw mobile data connection.
So there was no testing done. That much is certain.
And here’s where the next cardinal sin of a large rollout kicks in: little to no customer service availability. Mobycy’s “Help & Support” tab is incredibly unintuitive, with a dropdown list of issues and a single text field where you describe the issue. There’s no granularity in the kind of information they ask, like what the bike number you’re writing in about is, or what the ride number is; being asked to choose from a previous ride to specifically complain about is a distant dream. So you just say “This happened to me in my previous ride” and pray that they connect the dots by rummaging through your ride history. Bonus issue: the problem is often not submitted, because ‘Something went wrong’.
So there should be a more direct way to contact them, right? Like a helpline? Alas, while they do have a ten-digit mobile number listed in very small font at the bottom of the Help tab, nobody on the other end picks up. I tried thrice over the course of two days, in the blazing heat of daylight, well within office hours. Nada. It’s like they just dumped the cycles in Viman Nagar, set up the servers to do their thing, and took the whole team on a vacation to Bermuda.
And let me add another layer to this evolving nightmare. Some customers steal the cycles. On day one, they were mostly neatly arranged in their parking zones, and a truck did rounds collecting the cycles that were parked outside these zones and deposited them back in the circles designated for them. On day two, the truck was nowhere in sight, and most parking circles had been wiped out. The bikes were all sprinkled throughout Viman Nagar and neighbourhoods to its south. And many of them were inside apartment complexes, which meant that you can’t just walk in without having a long and confusing conversation about the concept of QR-code based dockless bikesharing with the society’s doorman (or as we call them, security).
I even found one bike that was hidden away inside a building. I couldn’t really report it to Mobycy, because I couldn’t find the bike in the first place, and then on top of that the app isn’t designed to let me pick out which bike is stolen from the map. There’s just a text field.
Mobycy has failed pretty much every step of the way. Bad product (the app sucks), bad scaling (can’t handle a high number of users even though data exchanged is very small), bad rollout (no customer care after launching, and Twitter is the only way to reach them, and replies take hours), and sometimes, bad bikes too (the brakes didn’t work in one that I tried, and the chain was wound so tight that riding it for a hundred meters gave me a backache so bad that I had to park the cycle and grab an auto).
This is a bad product executed badly. Launched at a time when there is scorching heat where you have to spend a lot of time outdoors fiddling with the app, it’s one hell of a burning mess. And this for such a simple idea — pop the lock open after paying. No company that messes up both the small things and the important aspects of their product deserves your business, even at ₹25 deposit fee and ₹10/hour. Skip Mobycy, and wait for the more promising-looking Ofo to pay a visit to Viman Nagar.
PS: The in-app icons on Mobycy are low-res images, not sharper-looking vector graphics. This should make any UI designer squirm. And to think it is one of the least of Mobycy’s sins.