Sidecar motors forward with revamped ride-sharing app for iOS, Android

If conventional transportation options are driving you crazy, then Sidecar is for you. The peer-to-peer ride-sharing platform lets you sidestep taxis, buses and trains, instantly matching passengers with nearby drivers going in the same direction via mobile app--all drivers are pre-screened by Sidecar, and passengers cough up whatever fare they feel is fair, with all payments billed to their credit card. (Sidecar claims 20 percent of each passenger "donation," with drivers keeping the rest.)

Sidecar is now up and running in metropolitan U.S. markets including the startup's native San Francisco along with Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston and Washington D.C. Its ongoing expansion is bolstered by investments from Lightspeed Venture Partners, Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) Ventures and others. Sidecar recently rolled out an overhauled version of its free iOS app, introducing a new UI and revamped rider/driver feedback system as well as new features like a detour mode supporting deviations from the original travel plan and multiple stops, Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) account creation, in-depth driver profiles and enhanced ride-booking options. A refreshed Android app is slated to follow.

But some lawmakers and cab companies want to ride Sidecar out of town on a rail. In late June Los Angeles Board of Taxicab Commissioners Executive Director Thomas M. Drischler sent Sidecar and other taxi alternatives Uber and Lyft cease-and-desist letters, alleging each firm is "operating an unlicensed commercial transportation service" and ordering them to suspend all services until they can obtain the requisite permits from California's Public Utilities Commission. Supporters have already responded with a petition protesting the commission's move.

Sidecar co-founder and CTO Jahan Khanna spoke to FierceDeveloper contributor Jason Ankeny about the retooled app, building for iOS and Android and the pressures of designing an app while grappling with legislative interference.

Jahan Khanna

Jahan Khanna

Jahan Khanna on revamping the Sidecar app: We rebuilt the entire app from the ground up. We've entirely redone the look and feel. You get to a certain point in the lifecycle of a company where it's just time to throw out all the code that was written by two guys in the very beginning.

We redid the general paradigm of way app works--we're trying to predict what the user will do and make it more convenient to use. We added a detour mode that allows you to modify routes--now drivers can pick up multiple people. As you travel from point A to point B, we also suggest a donation as you go along. It's all about letting you use the app in much more natural way.

User feedback plays a very important role in what we do. Every two weeks we conduct user surveys to determine what features are being requested, and they get put into the roadmap. Feedback determines about 50 percent of what goes into the app--the other 50 percent are things we think are good ideas. The new detour mode was the most requested feature out of our surveys.

Confirm Ride

Users can confirm a specific driver.

Khanna on developing for both iOS and Android: It's pretty tough to do. We frontload all the features onto our iOS build--our beta users are heavily skewed toward iOS, so we test on that platform. Whatever makes it through testing, we put into our iOS build, and if [beta users] like it and engage with it, we put it into the Android build. The Android build always lags behind. We don't want to build any features that we need to cut out twice.

[Android fragmentation] is a nightmare for us, just like it is for every other person. It's very hard on the passenger app, because we have to be able to support as many devices as possible. We do [quality assurance] testing on 20 different devices. It takes forever, but there's no magic bullet. On the driver app we can set thresholds and tell you that you have to have a newer Android build--people put up with greater restrictions there since they're making money off the app.

Ride Complete - Sidecar

Drivers are paid via donation.

Khanna on expanding Sidecar to Windows Phone and BlackBerry: We've thought about it. But I just want to stay focused on the 90 percent of the marketplace that owns smartphones. If the number of [Windows Phone and BlackBerry] users goes up drastically in the future, we'll look at it again.

Khanna on developing Sidecar in the face of regulatory pressures: This space is very messy, and the regulatory overhang presents real problems to product development. A good example is the suggested donation--it works pretty well, and I like the brand value it provides, but it's super-messy as a feature. We have to have protocols for people abusing the system or abusing drivers. That means we have to include our legal team to sign off on all major features. It's part of the development process.

There have been several features we couldn't include. Very early on, we wanted to allow drivers to bid different prices on the same ride. They would bid on how convenient it is for them to give a ride, what kind of car they drive, etc. I thought it would be an interesting feature. But the regulatory nature of several jurisdictions we serve made it illegal.

Khanna on Sidecar's future: We're going to continue expanding. We're in five cities now, and we've seen great growth there. There's another tier of five or six cities we'll soon be in. We're still identifying targets.

Khanna's advice for aspiring mobile developers: Just keep making apps. Eventually one of them will stop sucking. The next one after that will be pretty good.

Developer Workshop is a series of profiles exploring the current state of the mobile marketplace from the point of view of the software developers mapping out its future. Each profile focuses on a developer with a compelling story to tell, and offers their perspective on what the industry's doing right, what it's doing wrong and how to make it better. Check out our previous workshops on Shazam, InfoMedia, Viigo, Meet Now Live, Shortcovers, Pint Sized Mobile, Geodelic, Spark of Blue Software, Tarver Games, People Operating Technology Booyah, Bolt Creative, Thwapr, Monkeyland Industries, Rocket Racing League, Vlingo, Advanced Mobile Protection, PapayaMobile, Taptu, GameHouse, Avatron, aisle411, Crowdstory, Outfit7, ADP, Locai, The PlayForge, Universal Mind, Khush, MindJolt SGN, Matchbook, Next One's on Me, Out of the Park Developments, WhosHere, Roaming Hunger, Inside News360, RotoWire, Glympse, PlayFirst, PicsArt, Digisocial, MapQuest and VMware.