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A Short History of the Google-Uber Beef

The relationship was all good just three years ago

(Ringer illustration)
(Ringer illustration)

In Silicon Valley, friendships rarely last. Microsoft and Apple were partners before they were rivals. Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt helped pitch the iPhone at its unveiling before his company launched a competing operating system. After years of simmering discontent, we can add a new pairing to the long list of dramatic tech beefs: Google and Uber.

On Thursday, Waymo, the self-driving-car company that Google’s parent company, Alphabet, created last year, sued Uber over claims that it stole trade secrets. According to the plaintiff, a former executive on Google’s self-driving-car project, Anthony Levandowski, downloaded 14,000 confidential files from Google shortly before leaving the company and launching a self-driving-truck startup called Otto. Uber acquired Otto in August.

Google and Uber were once closely aligned, but they have had a tense relationship for years now, with each slowly encroaching on the other’s business aspirations. They devolved from allies to — at best — strategic partners. But this week’s lawsuit downgrades the relationship to “frenemies” status, with further fallout possible as the suit winds its way through the courts (all the tech giants are basically frenemies, so maybe Uber will wear this lawsuit as a badge of honor — that would be very Uber of them).

Here’s the sordid story of a relationship gone sour, tainted by unrestrained ambition, promiscuity with a rival, and even an insulting retweet.

Travis Kalanick Stans for Bing Maps (July 2009)

Back in the antiquated era of driving yourself around or using public transportation, Kalanick was a relatively unknown entrepreneur launching a black-car service that could be hailed via app. In the midst of this origin story, he retweeted (manually!) a message proclaiming, “sorry google, i love you but … Bing’s maps r just way better.” The rules of Twitter clearly state that if your bio doesn’t say “retweets are not endorsements,” they’re definitely endorsements. The Google-Uber relationship was off to a rocky start before it even began. (Uber acquired some of Bing’s mapping assets in 2015.)

Uber Uses Google Maps to Power Its App (2010)

Since the beginning, Uber has relied on Google Maps to guide its drivers and customers; even today, when the company uses mapping data from a variety of sources, you’ll still find a Google logo in the bottom-left corner of the app’s map. The terms of the two companies’ financial relationship aren’t public, but Google began charging for heavy daily usage of its Maps API in 2011.

Google Invests in Uber (August 2013)

Google Ventures, the search giant’s venture capital division, essentially bet the farm on Uber when it plunged $258 million into the startup in 2013. The figure represented 86 percent of the $300 million that Google Ventures was investing annually at the time. Google’s chief legal counsel, David Drummond, joined Uber’s board. It was a great bet — Uber was worth around $3.5 billion after that funding round and today it’s worth $68 billion. But the fact that Uber and Google are becoming increasingly competitive makes for some strange optics, though Google Ventures (now known as GV and an independent subsidiary of Alphabet) makes investment decisions independent of Google proper. Google is really the company that gave Uber the monetary push it needed to reach a stratospheric valuation.

Google Maps Gets Uber Integration (May 2014)

The honeymoon continued when Google began including Uber as a transit option in Google Maps in addition to walking, driving, or using public transportation. It would be two years until Google integrated other ridesharing options.

Uber Plots to Build Self-Driving Cars (February 2015)

In a clear violation of bro code, Uber announced it was going to begin investing heavily in self-driving cars even though Google was already charting a course to dominate the sector. Around this time, Uber also began systematically recruiting longtime Googlers across a variety of sectors. The practice continues today, with Amit Singhal, Google’s former head of search, joining Uber in January.

Google Allies With Uber’s Rival (January 2016)

This could be a Days of Our Lives plotline: Google forced its navigation app Waze to hop into bed with Lyft in order to make sworn rival Uber jealous. The partnership made Waze the standard navigation interface for Lyft drivers and allowed for drivers’ routes to be updated in real time, making Lyft Line carpooling more feasible.

Uber Doubles Down on Mapping Tech (July 2016)

Maps and navigation remain the connecting thread between Uber and Google. Last year Uber announced its plans to hack off this handcuff as soon as possible. The ridesharing company is investing a reported $500 million in developing worldwide maps for its driverless cars. I’m fully expecting the day when Uber gains full operational independence from Google and becomes a tech giant on equal footing to go something like this.

Google Exec Leaves Uber Board (August 2016)

I live for pettiness, so it was with great interest that I read that Uber was shutting out board member David Drummond from meetings last year because of his role at Google. Kalanick is 40 years old, but desperately avoiding someone to put off a really uncomfortable conversation is a classically millennial way of dealing with a relationship gone awry. Drummond resigned from the board over the summer.

Waymo Sues Uber (February 2017)

There are two funny things about Alphabet’s self-driving-car division suing Uber (besides the cosmic humor in Uber’s ongoing comeuppance, proving that the universe ultimately restores moral balance). First, the only reason this is even happening is because a Waymo employee was accidentally cc’d on an email meant for Uber that included a drawing of a circuit board Uber was using in the lidar sensors for its autonomous cars. Waymo believes the drawing looks suspiciously similar to its tech, prompting the allegations of stolen secrets. In short, a parts supplier being bad at email could upend one of Uber’s most important acquisitions.

The second funny thing is that, according to Waymo, Uber’s Levandowski had blatantly told colleagues that he planned to “replicate” the company’s self-driving tech at a competing firm. What’s up with Uber employees boasting about their Machiavellian plots to anyone who happens to be in earshot? The bombshell blog post by a former Uber engineer about the company’s broken HR system included managers telling their subordinates how they planned to play one executive against another by withholding “business-critical” information. In 2014, an Uber executive said, in public, that digging up personal dirt on journalists could be a sound business strategy. And another executive that same year told a journalist he was tracking her trips. Uber, if you want to be supervillains, do your thing. But don’t get caught monologuing.