Ofo Rental Bikes Are Getting OWNED

22 Feb 2017

I’ve recently commented on how the sudden rise of app-driven bike rental services in Shanghai is fairly staggering. From a casual look around the downtown area, it’s clear that Mobike and Ofo are currently the top dogs, and Ofo seems to be doing all right with its “cheaper” business model, despite its late entrance to the market. But I’ve recently learned that Ofo’s service has some pretty glaring flaws when compared to Mobike.

How Mobike and Ofo Differ

Both services use apps, but Mobike’s bicycles are more high-tech, and that makes a big difference. Mobike bikes have tracking devices embedded, and the bike locks are unlocked remotely through the network. Ofo bikes use simple combination locks that you can request the code for through the app.

So the Mobike service works like this:

  1. Use the app to find bikes near you
  2. Unlock a particular bike by scanning its QR code with the app
  3. (The bike’s lock automatically unlocks after a few seconds)
  4. Use the bike
  5. Park the bike and manually lock it
  6. Mobike’s services are informed the ride is over, and the bike’s location is made available to other users through the app

…and the Ofo service works like this:

  1. Find a bike yourself (no tracking devices)
  2. Send the bike’s ID number to Ofo via the app
  3. Receive the combination to the mechanical lock
  4. Unlock the bike with the combination
  5. Use the bike
  6. Park the bike and manually lock it

(Note: I don’t use Ofo myself, but I’ve spoken with people who do. Ofo bikes also have QR codes on their bikes, but they’re for the purpose of advertising the app, not unlocking the bikes. The Mobike QR codes serve both purposes.)

It seems like the Ofo system is fairly straightforward and would save a lot of money, right? Oh, but it has problems…

Ofo’s Locking Problem

Because Ofo uses combination locks, none of the bike locks are truly locked unless the last user changed the combination after closing the lock. And, it turns out, a lot of people don’t. A good number of Ofo bikes on the street are actually unlocked, if you just press the button on the lock.

When I first heard this, I was skeptical, but the very first bike I tried was unlocked. Later, I checked a sample of 20 bikes in the Jing’an area, and 4 were unlocked. So, 1 in 5. That’s a lot!

As it turns out, this isn’t Ofo’s worst problem, though…

People Are Publicly Stealing Ofo’s Bikes

Ofo bikes are locked with combination locks, and those combinations don’t change. So if you save the combination and can find the same bike again, you can use it for free. The only thing keeping you from using the same bike again is the sheer number of bikes out there and the other people using them. And the way that other people use the bikes is to request the combination through the app. But what if they couldn’t get the combination for “your” bike? To get the combination, other users need to read the bike’s ID number. But if this number is missing or unreadable, no one else can get the combination.

Ofo Public Bike Theft

Ofo Public Bike Theft

So this is how people are “owning” Ofo bikes. They’re getting the combination to a particular bike, and then scratching off or otherwise removing the bike’s ID number. I did a bit of hunting for “owned” Ofo bikes parked on the street, and did find a few. Logically, though, the “owned” bikes are probably going to be parked in less public places. I really wonder how many Ofo bikes have disappeared off the street.

Ofo Public Bike Theft

Ofo Public Bike Theft

I also wonder if this aspect of the “cheap bike” strategy has already been taken into account. Ofo has ample funding, after all. How many bikes can Ofo afford to lose and yet still have lower costs than Mobike, with its fancy high-tech bikes? Or, how many Ofo bikes need to be stolen before people realize that it’s easier (and not at all expensive) to just leave the bikes in the system? How long does it take before “owning” a ripped-off Ofo bike is uncool and/or shameful? Hard to say… and there are a lot of people in Shanghai!

Strange Competitive Practices

The other day near Jing’an Temple I snapped this shot of a few guys slowly escorting a “cargo tricycle” full of Mobike bicycles. The strange thing was the two of them were riding Ofo bikes!

Ofo vs. Mobike?

Ofo vs. Mobike?

I was in a hurry, so I didn’t even try to ask them any questions, but the guys were wearing clothes which read 特勤, which is probably short for 特殊勤务, something like “special forces” (a division of the police).

At least one Chinese person I showed these pictures to thought the uniforms looked fake, but who knows?

Ofo in Chinese Is “O-F-O”

Just a final note on the Chinese names of these two companies:

  • Mobike: 摩拜单车
  • Ofo: O-F-O

Yes, Ofo in Chinese is spelled out, just like the word “app” is spelled out in Chinese as “A-P-P.”

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. Peter Jolicoeur Says: February 22, 2017 at 10:06 am

    The quality of the OFO bikes is also quite poor. There is almost always something wrong with the bike: soft brake, crooked seat, unbalanced wheels, etc. My go-to bike is the new Mobike Lite, which is cheaper, lighter and has a basket. Win-win!

  2. yes, OFO doesn’t seem sustainable at all… I was also thinking that without GPS, how are they going to even try to maintain the bikes?

    one note, I used OFO and the QR code can be use to get the unlocking code as well.

    Here in Kunming, we have OFO, Mobikes and 永安行 youonbike.com. And soon, the city’s bikes with stations. (http://news.yntv.cn/content/15/201702/17/15_1449411.shtml)

    Also, have you seen this? “Kala, a bike-rental startup operating in Putian of Fujian Province, walking away with all users deposits” http://technode.com/2017/02/22/bike-rental-deposits-china-unsecure/

  3. Andriy Makukha Says: June 20, 2017 at 9:19 pm

    Very nice article, thanks! I wondered why so many Ofo bikes are just left broken on the streets here in Shenzhen. Lack of GPS tracking might explain why.

  4. Peter Zelchenko Says: June 26, 2017 at 8:14 pm

    The 特勤 (just security) guys are probably taking overflow from outside an area flooded with bikes. They’re most likely riding ofo because, as you and everyone else has pointed out, they are easy to use. The reason the two guys are following on ofo’s is that they need to help him unload. When you hear hoofbeats, don’t think zebras.

    As for who illegally sabotages and moves bikes, China Daily says that most often it’s black cycle drivers, to make sure commuters have no alternative transportation.

    http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2016-12/18/content_27700047.htm

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