Notes on São Paulo, in four apps

Aerial view of São Paulo
Aerial view of São Paulo

I’ve just come back from two weeks in São Paulo, Brazil, visiting friends and family (my wife’s side). I last visited three years ago, and since that time there’s been a clear increase in smartphone use. Brazil’s smartphone penetration is about 40% (of mobile users), and in comparatively wealthy São Paulo it’s likely much higher than the national average. I saw a few ways where the prevalence of smartphones has enabled big behavioural changes in the three years since I last visited; in each case the changes were in fundamentally new services, exposed to users through a mobile app.

As I’m curious, I made a habit of asking people about the services, the apps, and the changes in behaviour, and my observations are written here. They aren’t in any way meant to be comprehensive, or even necessarily to have any conclusions drawn from them. I’ve written this article solely out of interest.

And I want to make clear that I’m not trying to make generalisations about the city as a whole; from a municipal population of some 12 million people, my observations are based on a limited sample of people I met and spent small amounts of time with: mostly middle class friends and family, and working taxi and private hire drivers.

A quick note about the prices in this article: the currency of Brazil is the Real (R$). R$1 is worth about £0.25, or $0.30. Minimum wage is R$880 (£225 / $275) per month. Luxury goods tend to be priced equivalently to Western markets, making them relatively much more expensive.

Two men holding a banner advertising a prayer app
Evangelical Christians advertise a prayer app


The most commonly used messaging app, by quite a margin, is WhatsApp (known colloquially as Whats). Everyone I asked uses it. Messenger is also known, but apparently used mainly to reach the few friends you don’t yet have in your WhatsApp contact list.

When I arrived at Guarulhos airport I bought a local SIM. Tech support was provided as a WhatsApp number. Around São Paulo there are all sorts of informal services offered — these range from receiving nude pictures, to small scale witchcraft (love spells, and the like). They’re all organised through WhatsApp.

WhatsApp is so prevalent that it’s included as an incentive in mobile tariffs; for example, the telco Claro are promoting a package offering 600MB of data, but unlimited WhatsApp. For users in a developing country, even in comparatively wealthy São Paulo, free calling is a no-brainer.

Showing three uses of WhatsApp in advertising: Free use in a mobile tariff; nude photo exchange; love magic
WhatsApp (L-R): free use in a mobile tariff; nude photo exchange; love magic


There are some 12 million people in the city of São Paulo, and over 4 million cars. Almost half the households in the city commute by car. And, with very few exceptions, all journeys by car involved Waze.

Every taxi or private hire driver used it, and most citizen drivers too. São Paulo is a sprawling city with a chronic traffic problem, and Waze helps drivers find their way, and avoid some of the worst congestion. Waze was seen as better than Google Maps for directions (the few drivers I asked didn’t know that Google own Waze).

One thing taxi drivers didn’t like about Waze is that, in São Paulo, taxis can avoid congestion by using bus lanes at peak times; but Waze doesn’t know that it’s being used in a taxi, so doesn’t recommend those routes. When entering a taxi, the driver would often ask “is it OK if I use Waze?” – letting the passenger give directions if they know a better route, to avoid accusations of ripping off.

Aside: all the taxi drivers were using Android phones, mostly Samsung or Motorola. A popular phone seems to be the Samsung Galaxy J1, which costs R$600 new (or 14 monthly payments of R$60). For comparison, the entry-level iPhone SE starts at around R$2,100.

São Paulo (L-R): external power cables; shattered bulletproof glass in a metro station; free phone charger in a bar
São Paulo (L-R): external infrastructure; shattered bulletproof glass in a metro station; free phone charger in a bar

Uber & 99Taxis

São Paulo’s public transport infrastructure has problems. The metro is formed of four underground lines connecting to a handful of train lines, serving only a small portion of the city. Some of the stations are (or at least, feel) dangerous, with groups of homeless drug addicts sleeping rough and begging for money. Each metro journey costs $3.80.

Many people rely on the bus, although that suffers from a lack of timetable information and signalling at bus stops. It costs the same as the metro, so is comparatively quite expensive. (It also has a reputation for being dangerous.)

There are plenty of taxis, but they’re also quite expensive, starting at R$4.50 plus R$2.75 per km.

Given all of this, it’s not surprising that Uber is very popular among those that can afford it (largely the middle classes). Many journeys that would have been taken by bus, especially, are now taken by Uber instead; when people are sharing a car for a short trip the cost is only a little more than a bus ticket, with the advantage of picking you up and dropping you off wherever you want.

There are a handful of local rivals, of which 99Taxis (usually known as 99) is the best known. 99 began as a free app to connect users with the local taxi companies, before launching a mobile payments platform. It offers taxis at the general lower rate, a 30% discount over the standard street pickup tariff. Recently 99 expanded to include 99POP (private hire drivers) and 99TOP (private hire luxury car drivers). 99POP undercuts the prices of taxis, even with the discount, so some taxi drivers are boycotting the platform and using alternatives.

Many private hire drivers are registered with both Uber and 99 (and sometimes other services too), picking up whichever call arrives first. 99 offers the better deal for drivers, taking only a 15% cut compared to Uber’s 25%. Uber is much easier to sign up to, however; registration can be done entirely through the app, whereas 99 requires drivers to register in person and undergo some testing.

In a country where many people don’t have access to a credit card, both Uber and 99 offer an option to pay for a journey in cash (Uber launched card-only, but later dropped the requirement). This lets more passengers onto the platform, but decreases financial security for drivers; one driver told us that he took a passenger on a ~R$30 trip, only for them to flee on foot when they arrived near the destination.

Another of the advantages for drivers of 99 over Uber is that 99 lets drivers choose to accept requests only from passengers with registered cards. Uber doesn’t permit that option, although apparently will refund drivers for any lost fares through bad payments or criminal action.

Like so much of life in São Paulo, crime is rife with private hire services. Another driver told us that he got called out to a remote address, only to be robbed of his mobile at gunpoint. It seems that criminals steal mobiles from people in the street then use them to call Uber, knowing that at the very least they’ll be able to steal another phone, a wallet, and possibly even a car. Another story we heard, although not first-hand, was that criminals would call UberPOOL and rob all the passengers on board.

All of this criminal behaviour was a risk for taxi drivers before the advent of private hire apps, but the apps have put more drivers on the road and created more opportunities for crime. The positive impact, however, is that two people I spoke to told me that access to services like Uber and 99 has meant that they can get rid of their own cars and still feel able to get around the city easily and safely.

Pokémon and Public Shaming

I missed out on the Pokémon craze the first time around, because I’m old. So I don’t have any nostalgic attachment to it, and while I have Pokémon Go on my phone, I don’t play it beyond occasional thumb-twiddling moments; it makes me too closely identify with Stephen Collins’s cartoon.

Cartoon about playing Pokémon Go as an adult
Stephen Collins, published by The Guardian

But generally, I don’t get agitated about people playing it. It’s pretty fun, it’s interesting, I don’t see it as any worse than many other entertainment pastimes. I definitely don’t see it as enslaving brain-dead humanity.

Phone-obsessed man being ridden like a horse by Pikachu
‘ABVH’, based on a cartoon by Pawel Kuczynski

I really can’t abide this vision. Apart from being essentially misanthropic, it’s ignorant of history, and part of a repeating pattern of public shaming and moral panics over new technology. This includes the umbrella; early users were “hooted and jeered at”, and called “mincing Frenchmen”.

We need to put aside this idea that new technology makes us dumber, more self-obsessed, or isolated. As Randall Munroe’s XKCD put it: “It’s been two centuries. Take a hint.”

Cartoon: bemoaning new technology through the ages
Randall Munroe, XKCD

The reality of virtual reality

In Oslo airport last month I saw this table display in an electronics shop. “Virtual Reality starts here”, it says. Two VR devices were offered for sale: the Samsung Gear VR, and a smartphone-based unit by Homido, which was selling for 699 NOK (about £63, although it would have been cheaper then, pre-Brexit referendum).

The previous month in Greenwich Market, here in London, I saw a stall selling robust, own-branded Google Cardboard units. They were about £12, I recall. I saw a few people try them and look quite impressed.

These are two small signs of virtual reality breaking into the mainstream. Or, at least, trying to; because right now it’s uncertain whether VR can fully make that step.

I should state up front that I’m a fan of VR. I’m excited to see it become commoditised, to visualise the possibilities inherent in what Kevin Kelly calls the “internet of experiences”. It’s really exciting to watch people’s reactions as they try VR for the first time.

But there’s a real possibility that VR doesn’t have lasting value beyond that initial reaction. The risk is that VR headsets follow the pattern of the Nintendo Wii: hailed as a breakthrough mainstream device, huge initial public impact, then slowly abandoned over time as interest wanes, left to only the hardcore gamers.

It’s hard to gauge the public interest in VR. In tech and advertising circles it’s receiving a lot of attention, we know it’s an area that the major players are into: Google, Facebook, Samsung, HTC, and Twitter all have VR teams, and you can bet that Apple are investigating it secretly too. But in terms of consumer demand?

We should know more about sales by the end of the year: between now and Christmas we should see the Oculus Rift start to ship at scale, as well as the cheaper and more accessible Sony Playstation VR. The first devices to meet Google’s Daydream standard should also become available in that time. What we know for now is that a recent estimate puts Vive sales at around 100,000; not bad, but not stunning. The Gear VR could ship an estimated 10 million units by the end of 2016, as they’re giving away the headset with their new phones in many markets.

But even if the non-gaming public have access to a headset, will they want to use it? Or re-use it? We don’t know. We can be sure it won’t be for lack of effort from manufacturers and content producers; there are some really smart people and teams out there considering VR as a distinct art form and experimenting to find new ways to tell stories in it.

But I have one major problem with VR: it isolates. It’s typical of the ‘software above the level of a single person’ problem: it’s not built for people who live in groups. For me to use VR at home I have to block out my wife entirely. In any other leisure activity we do at home, even when reading, watching or playing different things, we’re only separate, not isolated.

And I can’t use a VR headset out of my home, because I’ll lose awareness of my surroundings (not to mention the bulk of carrying it around). So it becomes something I can only use in very limited, occasional moments, and then it becomes much harder to justify the expense. Perhaps this isn’t a universal problem, but I suspect it will be common.

Headsets need to become lighter, cheaper, and more easily allow access to the external world. I’m sure the technology will get there. But I’m less certain there will be sufficient audience to sustain it until that point. We’ll find out in 2017.

How to cope with the future?

I don’t know if you’ve been following the news, but things have been bloody hectic here in the United Kingdom in the past few weeks. It’s all quite confusing; day-to-day life goes on largely as usual for most of us, while we’re exposed to a state of breakneck change all around. The micro-future seems as predictable as ever, while the macro-future remains wholly uncertain and unknowable.

I feel like a rug has been pulled out from under me. The immediate impact is that I find myself unable to write. I don’t have the focus, the concentration, or the patience to tie connections together. I need to rediscover the craft.

Here are two things I recently read about the future, written some 1,850 years apart. I’m not sure how to connect them beyond that they point towards some equanimity.

The future doesn’t stop coming just because you stop planning for it.

Farhad Manjoo

Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.

Marcus Aurelius