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I saw variations of the word “stunned” in the coverage of the settlement Alphabet and Uber reached Friday. I was stunned the suit ever went to trial at all.
I speculated in mid-November that it was “increasingly likely” the “nasty spat” would end in “some kind of split decision.” While someone—Uber, former CEO Travis Kalanick, disgraced engineer Anthony Levandowski—had done some unpleasant things, these probably didn’t include stealing and implementing Waymo’s technology, the burden of proof in a trade-secrets case. “Finding closure that doesn’t cost Uber billions will be a victory,” I concluded.
That’s pretty much what happened. Alphabet inflicted maximal embarrassment on Uber, which was shown at minimum to be deceitful. Then Alphabet took a sliver of additional equity in Uber that amounts to roughly $245 million. Uber removes a giant operational and financial risk.
It’s obvious why Uber settled. Why did Alphabet? The simplest reason likely is that it didn’t much like its case. And it liked it less as the trial got underway. Uber’s defense is that while Levandowski may well have taken files and while Kalanick behaved in an underhanded manner, Uber never used any technology belonging to Alphabet.
One oft-speculated reason for Alphabet’s settlement is that it didn’t want the reclusive Larry Page, Alphabet’s CEO, to take the stand this week. That’s silly. Page can more than handle cross examination; he’s a master at swatting away unwanted questions. The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal wisely wonders if Alphabet received some kind of ability to audit Uber to ensure it isn’t using Waymo technology.
And so one of the most curious business stories of our time remains so but moves forward. Alphabet is and continues to be a major investor in Uber—and in its primary U.S. competitor, Lyft. The same is true for SoftBank, which has invested in every other notable Uber competitor around the world. Uber still hemorrhages money but grows rapidly, primarily because it subsidizes rides (and food deliveries) with its investors’ money.
Can Uber be a business? With the Alphabet (GOOGL) litigation resolved, we’re now closer than ever to knowing.