Benner on Tech: Uber's Epoch and Startups (Finally!) Defined

Katie Benner is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about technology, innovation, and the cult and culture of Silicon Valley. She lives in San Francisco.
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Uber was the startup that we couldn’t take our eyes off in 2014. It’s the company that forced us to be more imaginative about the possibilities afforded by mobile computing. It’s also the company that did more than any other to give tech culture and the idea of disruption a bad name.

In 2015 it will be a major bellwether of the emerging sharing economy, and it will be an influential force in the related debates that will spring up over labor markets and worker rights. It will also be an important indicator of the late-stage venture market and the health (or lack thereof) of the market for public offerings. And it will continue to shape public transportation policy around the globe.

As the company gears up to surge price the heck out of all of us on New Year’s Eve (an inevitability that’s sure to get the press and the Twitterati hot and bothered between now and Jan. 1), it’s also facing one of its more interesting setbacks yet. The company has suspended operations in Spain in response to a ruling that its low-cost UberPop services doesn’t comply with Spanish laws. The New York Times notes that this case had an unusual twist: “The judge also ordered that Spanish telecommunications operators and banks stop supporting the company’s services.”

There’s no doubt that Spain, along with governments around the world, will regulate Uber and its peers. But it doesn't have to let Uber operate as it undertakes that task, and it doesn't have to work with Uber to get the job done.

The interesting question, particularly for investors who have valued it at $41 billion, is whether or not all the changes that Uber has wrought will be shaped and resolved with the company’s input.

Already, taxi companies are wising up and creating their own ride-hailing apps. Urban transportation seems to be shaping up as a local market, rather than an easily linked global network. And even though governments recognize that policies need to change in order to respond to the Ubers of the world, that doesn’t mean they want to work with Uber to develop the new rules of the road. 

In other news… 

Year-in-review stories are great the first few times and a yawn by the time you slog through the millionth one. But I wanted to share the few that stuck out to me.

* Zero Hedge: Things to do in 2015 When You’re Not Yet Dead

An article in the Guardian today said that 2014 was The Year The Internet Came Of Age. I think I’ll stick with my 2014: The Year Propaganda Came Of Age, but the combination of the two leads to interesting questions. Like: what role has the internet played in the rise of the propaganda that led to almost none of our so-called higher-educated people asking any questions about what really happened in Ukraine, or about so many other situations the ever more concentrated powers that rule us are involved in.

* Ben Thompson: The Stratechery Year in Review

* Buzzfeed’sCharlie Warzel: A Highly Scientific And Sobering Study Of My Year On Twitter

But on more occasions than I care to admit, I’d see real-life acquaintances, co-workers, and even friends remove me from their feed for good. This shouldn't have hurt, but it did, so I did what any completely unhinged person would do — and decided to email a few of them about their decision.

MediaREDEF’s Jason Hirschhorn: .@JasonHirschhorn's 2014 List

All over the place, like my head. A work in progress until 11:59pm December 31st, 2014.

If you read one story today, MediaREDEF delivered unto my mailbox this Atlantic feature on the kids who mine electronic detritus for scraps of metal. 

Ventureland

The New New Tech Bubble. The Wall Street Journal’s Christopher Mims says you don’t need a stock boom for tech, as an asset class, to be inflated, and someday the air will have to come out.

Every hot tech company I can think of, from “sharing economy” giants such as Uber and Airbnb, to enterprise and financial-tech companies like Hortonworks (big data) and Lending Club (peer-to-peer financing) face threats that could cause them to fall short of current valuations. Those threats include regulation and competition, but the biggest one is the same as it ever was: Whether there are enough people and companies out there willing to buy their stuff.

Pastebin, Dailymotion and Github were blocked in India at the behest of the Department of Telecom, the Times of India reports.

Super, Kanvas Keyboard and Shyp made Vogue's 10 best apps of 2014. I’m taking it with a grain of salt. This is, after all, the magazine that said these sandals were a top summer shoe and recommended this pair of harem pants for “any woman with a slim top half.”

Beepi, an online marketplace for used cars, raised $12.7 million from Russian investor Yuri Milner and hedge fund manager Scott Bommer, along with a syndicate of investors on AngelList. Re/code says this marks the largest investment made by an AngelList syndicate.

A startup by any other name would not generate so much hype. TechCrunch’s Alex Wilhelm finally outlines what’s a startup and what is not, using a set of totally arbitrary but sort of logical parameters.

Whttl co-founder Greg Muender tells us how to win on Hacker News.

Primeloop founder Thomas Knoll writes about the lessons he learned when the company went under. “In the real world, ‘Time is Money.’ In the startup world, ‘Money is Time.’”

People and Personnel Moves

Astro Teller,Google’s “captain of moonshots, tells Fortune about how Google X works.

Tobias van Schneider, who designs and builds products for Spotify, talks to First Round Capital about why some side projects turn into successes a la Gmail and Craigslist.

Xavier Di Petta and Kyle Cameron, are the teenagers who run the popular Twitter account @HistoryInPics. The Atlantic argues that they’re among the first to create “a genuine phenomenon built entirely on Twitter.”

Companies

Facebook…

* The company suspended the account of a Chinese dissident who staged a nude protest, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Google…

* Some Gmail access has been restored in China, TechCrunch reports.

Microsoft…

* Remember when Satya Nadella told attendees at a conference that women don’t need to ask for a raise? Remember that the event was held to celebrate women’s achievements in tech? Remember the uproar? CNET reports that the incident and Nadella’s apology have sparked an important discussion about unconscious bias within Microsoft as it tries to be a more inclusive, diverse company.

Cybercrime Blotter

The Guardians of Peace, the cyberterrorists who hacked Sony Pictures, have also threatened a U.S. news organization, according to an FBI bulletin obtained by the Intercept.

The FBI maintains that North Korea is still responsible for the Sony hack, despite the sea of skeptics that say otherwise, Engadget reports.

An app promising to download the movie “The Interview” is actually stealing bank account information, Mashable reports.

We’re being spied on, of course, and this year we learned a lot about all the ways we’re under surveillance. PRI has a roundup.

Still have an appetite for Sony hack stories? Then the Wall Street Journal’s look behind the scenes as the company burned (well, from the point of view of executive Michael Lynton) is just the thing for you.

The FBI is investigating whether U.S. banks launched a hack counterattack to disable servers used by Iran, Bloomberg’s Michael Riley and Jordan Robertson report.

Media Files

Yahoo is gonna buy CNN, predicts Tom Dotan at the Information.

The Wall Street Journal identifies the 13 big media and advertising trends that were supposed to happen and never came to pass.

The top five digital media launch mistakes, as identified by Elizabeth Spiers, including thinking you’re a tech company and underpaying employees.

The Intercept published part two of its interview with Jay Wilds, a pivotal character in the "Serial" examination of murder of Hae Min Lee.

The biggest questions facing old media, according to Deadline, include succession, content distribution and deals.

News and Notes

The Horror: VMWare is testing a new prediction technology from Workday that can predict when an employee is getting ready to quit, reports Bloomberg’s Jack Clark.

Tracking airplanes is still impossible, even though we can track just about everything else. Bloomberg Businessweek explains why.

Six trends that mattered in 2014 will continue to dominate the tech conversation in 2015, says the New Yorker, including troubles in the sharing economy and Apple’s new watch.

Trends to watch in 2015 also include privacy and biomedical devices, according to Alex Howard’s latest for TechRepublic.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.