Monday, March 20, 2017

Come on, a trial would be waymo interesting

Well, the news came in last week that Google v. Uber might not be going to trial, but could be heading for arbitration instead. Is it just me, but – costs be damned! – wouldn’t a trial be waymo fun? After all, arbitration tends to result in a confidential finding. If we don’t have access to the facts of the matter, guess we’ll have to follow the current trend and just make up our own alt facts, which will depend, I guess, on whether we like Google better than Uber or vice versa. That’ll be a hard one. I am an occasional Uber-er, once every couple of weeks or so. But I’m a daily/hourly Googler. My natural tendency would be to lean Google, as their motto – “Don’t be evil.” – is a lot more woke than Uber’s “Evolving the way the world moves.”

For those who hadn’t gotten word about the autonomous car brouhaha, Waymo is Google’s self-driving car division. It – or their parent company, Alphabet, which no one calls anything but Google – is suing Uber:

…for allegedly using 14,000 documents of proprietary information stolen from Waymo by former employee Anthony Levandowski, who went on to start autonomous truck company Otto—which, in turn, was purchased by Uber. (Source: The Drive)

How this all came to light was that someone from Uber accidentally included someone from Waymo on an email that attached some Otto designs that had a suspicious resemblance to Waymo design. Oops…

Anyway, this whole thing is/was a lot bigger than Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s recent set-to with one of his drivers. With Google coming after them:

…the company must worry about a legal dispute that could cost it a truckload of money, kill its self-driving research, and even land more than one executive in prison. (Source: Wired)

If this incident goes to arbitration, it’s unlikely that anyone will be Ubering off in an orange jump suit. After all, arbitration has been dubbed “corporate America’s ‘get out of jail free’ card.” But truckload of money and killing their self-driving initiative don’t sound like Ubers to the beach, either. Wonder if there’s claw back so that Uber – if it ends up with a big fine – can retrieve the $680M is spent last summer to acquire Otto. Anyway, if the allegations are true, well, is this any way to evolve the way the world moves? I think not…

Part of the forensic evidence was that, on his way out the Waymo door, Levandowski allegedly sucked gigs of data pertaining to Waymo’s trade secrets on LIDAR (LIght Detection And Ranging) out of his laptop and onto an external hard drive. LIDAR’s what helps those autonomous cars and trucks get around without crashing into other autonomous cars and trucks. It’s a really big deal.

…a legal loss could devastate Uber’s self-driving car program, and thus the company’s future. Uber’s developing a self-driving car in the hope of cutting out the expensive middlemen, its drivers. But it’s also a defensive move, because if another player—Waymo, Ford, GM or anyone else in this race—gets there first, they could do the same thing, undercutting Uber’s human-dependent service….

This is an existential crisis.

Existential crises sure aren’t what they were when Sartre was a boy, but as current day existential crises goes, this is right up there.

As so often happens, this really big deal reminds me of a really no big deal incident that occurred in the course of my long and really no big deal career.

Back in the day, I worked for an underfunded software company that had great ideas and technology, but could never get out of its own way. It didn’t start out all that underfunded. In a time when $40M was a lot of money, we had managed to suck that amount out of our hapless investors, a group that included (of all things) a true widows and orphans fund. But then our investors ran out of patience – you know how those widows and orphans can be - and we were limping along with one of our great ideas, just trying to stay in business. The market for this particular tech application area was just getting hot, but our technology hadn’t gotten a ton of care and feeding. So we were just getting by. Everyone knew what we needed to do – get rid of our dependence on OS/2 (an IBM operating system), develop an interface that someone who was not a core programer could actually use – but pretty much all we were able to do was patch it up and get it out the door, hoping each month that we could find enough custoers to keep the roof over our heads.

The lead engineer on this product had been “working from home” for a good swath of time over an extended period. He was supposedly head down coding some new miracle version of our pathetic and worn out product. But we weren’t seeing anything of it.

Then there was the day when a couple of developers walked out the door with a server. Which a day later they returned, and proceeded to give in their resignations, as did the lead engineer. And they went off to found a company in the same domain we were in.

Only they were starting with a blank slate and investment money.

I really don’t think that they stole our IP. Who wanted a product based on OS/2? This was, after all, just about the time that Info Week had a cover depicting OS/2 in a coffin with a lily on its lid. But I do believe that what this crew had been doing was spending their last couple of months at our company working on the new exciting stuff for their new company. Thus, the walk out with the server. It wasn’t our stuff; if was their stuff. Sort of. They’d quite dishonorably done their work on our dime. (Why did they need to “borrow” the server? Were there no portable hard drives they could have backed it up to then? This would have been somewhere in the mid-90’s.)

Fast forward, and we ended up suing them. They settled with us for less than $1M, but that was a big deal for us, and it was a cash infusion that we sorely needed. But they had real investment money, and they flourished while we just managed to keep our nose above water. We lasted a few more years before being acquired for chump change, but chump change was all we were worth. A few years later, they were acquired for non chump change. ($100M.) I lost a friendship over the law suit. As Michael Corleone famously told his consigliere Tom Hagen, “don't let anybody kid you. It's all personal, every bit of business.”

Anyway, it will be interesting to see how this Google-Uber thing plays out.

A trial sure would have been interesting, though.

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