Mobile Apps and the Sharing Economy

By the time we’re old enough to crawl, we’ve been drilled in the importance of sharing with others.  Recently, however, all our technological advancements have made sharing possible on a much larger scale than a schoolyard sandbox, and many people are discovering just how beneficial sharing can be.

A few days ago the Guardian ran a piece on the new “sharing economy,” highlighting entrepreneurs like Martin Varsavsky, whose company Fon encourages individuals to share their WiFi connections, making them available to other Fon subscribers and thus creating the largest free WiFi network in the world.

The sharing economy is driven by peer-to-peer exchanges of goods and services that reduce prices across the board for everyone, and it’s a perfect playground for mobile app developers.  Apps like Airbnb, for example, give consumers cheaper (and homier) alternatives to sterilized hotel rooms.  Ride-sharing apps like Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar make it easier and cheaper for commuters to get around town.  Other apps like Spinlister allow users to rent out the bicycles that don’t often make it out of their garages.  There’s even an app called Leftover Swap that lets you barter your doggie bags at the end of an agreeable meal.  (This last one was naturally thought up in a college dorm.)

Our traditional service economy is naturally going through growing pains, and in many cases it’s not pretty.  Some states, for example, are contemplating a dedicated hybrid-car tax, because hybrid cars use less gasoline, and those state coffers are suffering from the falloff in gas tax revenues.  Ride-sharing apps are fighting court battles in just about every city they’re in, as their success has wreaked havoc on taxi revenues.  Nigel Warren of NYC rented out rooms in his home on Airbnb for $315, then got hit with a $2,400 fine for violating hotel laws.

Many see this evolution as a threat to capitalism, without stopping to contemplate the notion that this is precisely how capitalism works.  It’s both ironic and unfortunate that capitalists in the traditional economy are seeking more government regulations, and more enforcement of those regulations, rather than trying to adapt to a profitable idea that didn’t happen to be theirs.  But the freedoms inherent in the mobile economy are here to stay, and that’s a good thing.

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