Waymo v. Uber and Technology Theft in Silicon Valley
by Jim Lundy
The Waymo v. Uber self-driving technology lawsuit is underway, and front and center is the debate over ownership. The two key actors are Uber Chairman Travis Kalanick, and Anthony Levandowski, a former employee of Waymo (owned by Google parent Alphabet) who left to form his own self-driving truck company, which was later bought by Uber.
Idea and actual technology theft in Silicon Valley is not new—it is a best practice.
Self-Driving Car Technology, Waymo v. Uber
Regardless of the lawsuit’s outcome, technology theft certainly occurred with Levandowski at the center. Did Uber’s Kalanick encourage him? For sure. Is that why Waymo is suing Uber? Yes. Given some of the legal discovery in the case, it looks fairly promising that Waymo will win, but that does not necessarily mean that they will receive an injunction against Uber.
That would seem to be the logical outcome, but tech firms have become increasingly adept at appeals and tying up cases in court. Alphabet and Google are also not immune to charges of idea theft. Let’s talk smartphones.
Apple iPhone, Steve Jobs, and Eric Schmidt
In 2006, the year before the iPhone was announced, Eric Schmidt joined the Board of Apple. In January 2007, Apple announced the iPhone. By November 2007, Google had announced the Open Handset Alliance and the Android OS. Do you think Apple was shocked? Most definitely.
From then on, it soured the relationship between the two firms, but Apple never sued Google. Android has gone on to become number one in market share for mobile phone operating systems even though Google only produces a small fraction of the phones. The other firm that has taken advantage of Apple’s smartphone innovation is Samsung.
Samsung vs. Apple
Samsung, the South Korean conglomerate, is one of the top manufactures of Android-based smartphones.
Apple sued Samsung for copyright infringement and won its case in 2012 (see Aragon Research’s blog for more info). However, Samsung continued to appeal and no injunction was ever really effective at slowing down Samsung’s success. On top of that, Apple has a complex relationship with Samsung, which is a supplier for iPhone components.
Apple and Microsoft vs. Xerox
Steve Jobs’ visit to Xerox PARC in 1979 and the launch of the Apple Lisa and later the Apple Mac are well-known examples of innovation that got away from Xerox. On top of that, Microsoft recruited many PARC engineers to develop the Microsoft Mouse, Windows, and Microsoft Word, which is a direct lift of features in the word processing editors that Xerox developed. Xerox never sued either firm, but Microsoft later signed a license agreement with Xerox. In the short term, Bill Gates monetized Windows and Office more effectively than Jobs did, but it’s important to keep in mind that Jobs had to leave Apple for a while.
Steve Jobs and Apple delivered unique innovation when they invented the iPhone and reinvented the smartphone market. The rest is history, as Apple revenues are now larger than IBM and Microsoft’s combined.
The lesson highlighted here is that technology theft is real, and ideas in their early stages prior to market creation are most vulnerable to theft. Preventing key employees from leaving during the early stages is essential to maintaining an edge in original product launches and future iterations. Additionally, limiting the information passed onto board members is vital—as Apple learned from having Eric Schmidt on their board. As the world becomes more global, this issue is no longer one that is limited to Silicon Valley.
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