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Stateside with Rosalea: Web Van Winkle

Last Sunday, the local Fox TV station led its 11 p.m. bulletin with live pictures of shadowy figures carrying plastic bags full of personal belongings from a shadowy building in the distance. No, it wasn't Washington and they weren't the police; it was a huge warehouse in Oakland and they were webvan employees. According to one of the employees who was interviewed, they were given two weeks' pay and told their benefits would continue till the end of the month. (Job benefits in the U.S. are usually dental and medical insurance and employer contributions to a tax-exempt retirement fund.)

At 5.30 a.m. Pacific time the next day, a company spokesperson announced webvan had filed for bankruptcy, company stocks frozen for all time at a value of 6c a share, down from an initial $34 a share in 1999. But you know all this. The whole world knows all this because analysts have been delighting in holding up webvan as the example of everything you can possibly do wrong as an e-business. Yet right down to that final announcement webvan's spokesperson expressed the belief that the concept was simply ahead of its time.

Perhaps like Rip Van Winkle - who fell asleep just before the American Revolution - he hoped that in twenty years he would wake up and find himself in a new nation. What sort of a nation could webvan thrive in? The answer is simple to anyone who ever used the service - one without gridlocked traffic and with good labour relations. I used webvan twice and each time swore I'd never use it again because they missed their promised half-hour delivery window, making me late for work and costing me pay. I asked them to deliver early in the morning; a co-worker once asked them to deliver mid-evening, before she and her partner went out for the night, and they missed that delivery window too - then kept calling her up, even after midnight, saying they still had the groceries and were in the area so could they come by and deliver them after all?

Today I dug out my webvan invoice from the first delivery and found I'd written on it the prices a rival web-based delivery service charged for the same items. Peapod.com was operating at the time out of Andronico's - a relatively expensive supermarket - and Walgreens, which is a pharmacy. On every item webvan's prices were cheaper, and the price of the dozen eggs I bought was exactly the same price I paid a month later when I walked down to my local Andronico's and bought some.

Except that I got the webvan eggs for free. The delivery person checked the eggs as he was unpacking them, discovered one was cracked, and credited me for the entire dozen. On my second delivery, nearly a year later when I'd forgotten the first disaster, one of the items was completely wrong and again I was credited with the cost and the person seemed to be suggesting I keep the unwanted item anyway. Sorry, but hot jalapeno pepper sauce is no substitute for maple syrup when blending fresh fruit for breakfast. I don't know if the delivery people were trying to establish good customer relations or if they were penalised in some way for taking items back.

It was easy to order on-line and despite getting the occasional thing wrong webvan could have been a sensible way for me to shop, not having a car. For many people the convenience had to do with the time they didn't have to spend standing in queues in supermarkets, and several of the local commentators dissing webvan's business strategies after its demise readily admitted they used the service regularly. The main beef about webvan is that it made a loss on every delivery. In large part, I believe, that loss was caused by the time wasted standing in slow-moving or non-moving traffic.

The single biggest block to the technology revolution changing consumer living patterns in the United States is the automobile industry. And don't the car manufacturers know it! Every one of them is in a race to lure the brightest technologists into their quest to ensure that the ideal of at least one car for every family results in their product being on the road. Over the next twenty years the "operating system" might change from petrol-driven to hybrid petrol-electric or even fuel cells but all those vehicles will still be out there clogging up the roads, especially at peak commuting times.

The technologies that have the dubiously achievable goal of streamlining the way traffic moves on freeways are still in their infancy, and for all the talk that, for example, BMW's Connected Drive "opens up the way into a future of intelligent mobility" nothing is going to change the fact that clogging your city streets with cars all day is not intelligent. Even London has finally grasped that concept, by beginning to charge those people who drive into the city simply to use it as a carpark while they're at work.

The Bay Area is fortunate in the sense that it has one of the Top 10 Public Works Projects of the 20th Century in its midst - the Bay Area Rapid Transit system. But it needs expanding. Down in the South Bay a measure put on the November ballot last year to expand BART south, easily won the majority needed for it to be acted upon - despite the local city council having voted down the idea at one of its meetings. Voters aren't daft. They know when something isn't working and they know how to avoid making it worse. All the TV sets in the back of SUVs to keep the kids amused, or the stockmarket reports right to your car are quite obviously bells and whistles hanging off a pig's ear if you can't get to where you're going on time.

Not that I don't love cars. When BMW had four of its latest offerings on show at the computer sciences school this week, where one of their technologists - his presentation style billed as a cross between Albert Einstein and Dr. Seuss - was talking to graduate students, I was as excited as the next person. When they release the Mini Cooper in the States in March 2002, for a price of $US18,000, I'll be beating a path to whichever car rental company puts them in their fleet. After all, I steered my first mini at age 7 - across the showroom floor at the garage where my father was a mechanic. The hand-built model I saw this week in silver and forest green is to die for.

But to get around the Bay Area I'll take BART and the other public transit. Simply because it makes sense. And whenever I get off at Embarcadero Station I tip my hat to the longest sentence I have ever seen carved in stone: "Regional mass transit pioneer Marvin E Lewis, a determined prophet for whom praises often went unsung but whose crusading spirit and eloquence kept the image of rapid transit alive while the tapestry of the bay community grew to fit his dream, is honored by San Franciso for his unquenchable ardor and unflagging perseverance, which vanquished early doubters and presented a gift of unmatched value to his city - the genesis of the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District."

(See www.mini.co.uk or www.miniusa.com for the Mini Cooper. And www.bmw-tech.com for the Palo Alto-based BMW research centre, where you'll also discover that the first oral contraceptive was created in the Silicon Valley - an important piece of technology, indeed, for those in the back seat!)

Lea Barker
California
Saturday July 14, 2001


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