Benner on Tech: Uber's Softer Side and Google Loves SpaceX

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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People are Talking About…

What a difference a year makes for Uber.

Last May Travis Kalanick told an audience at the Code conference that his company was essentially in a war with the taxi industry and regulators around the world who were, by his reckoning, owned by the cabbies. He said:

[Uber’s] changing the way cities work, and that’s fundamentally a third rail. We’re in a political campaign, and the candidate is Uber and the opponent is an a**hole named Taxi. Nobody likes him, he’s not a nice character, but he’s so woven into the political machinery and fabric that a lot of people owe him favors.

He was in war mode and his goal then was to hire a political campaign manager to “bring out the truth about how dark and dangerous and evil the taxi side is.”

When Kalanick took the stage this week at the DLD conference in Munich, his message was that it’s time for Uber to play nice with politicians in Europe and find ways to work together to introduce laws that would let the ride hailing app flourish in cities across the European Union. This time he didn’t focus on how the corrupt taxi industry has captured the regulators, but on how much tax revenue Uber could generate for said regulators and how many jobs Uber could create.

Who knows if the change of heart is sincere. It seems, at the very least, that it’s been born of necessity. Ever since Kalanick spoke at Code, the press has been filled with stories about how much more dangerous it is to hail an Uber than it is to flag down a cab.

On the one hand there have been lots of worries about how the company treats private user data. On the other more-immediately-scary-hand, there also have been stories about passengers allegedly being raped, kidnapped or assaulted by Ubers drivers in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Delhi. (The company only recently introduced driver background checks in India.) A debate broke out in my Facebook thread about whether Uber is truly more dangerous than your typical cab service. There are, of course, no stats. But it does seem curious that there seem to be so many more stories in the press about Uber drivers assaulting passengers than there are accounts of cab drivers, or drivers who work for other ride-hailing services, committing similar assaults. 

No matter how Uber feels about the assault allegations, the company has now been banned in cities around the world. The legal wrangling that comes with all of that is expensive and it gives competitors time to create their own taxi hailing apps and services. Strong local competition in every city is the greatest threat to Uber right now, and it’s the reason why we may continue to see Kalanick’s softer side.

Ventureland

Airbnb told the New York State Legislature and New York City Council that it could collect as much as $65 million in hotel occupancy taxes this year, TechCrunch reports. Before it can collect the tax money, the company needs state and local governments to create a legal framework for Airbnb rentals.

Palantir Technologies, a big data analytics company, is raising a new funding round and was most recently valued at $15 billion, the Wall Street Journal reports.

SpaceX is closing in on a $1 billion investment that could value the space exploration company at more than $10 billion, the Wall Street Journal reports. The Information says that investors include Google, which wants to work with SpaceX on delivering Internet service via satellites.

Venture capitalists invested $48.3 billion into U.S. startups last year, Bloomberg reports, citing data from the National Venture Capital Association. That’s the biggest dollar figure since 2000, when investors put $105 billion into private companies. Venture investments jumped 60 percent between 2013 and 2014.

People and Personnel Moves

Lee Don-tae has joined Samsung as senior vice president of the company’s global design team, the Wall Street Journal reports. Lee was formerly an executive at the UK design agency Tangerine.

Companies

Amazon…

The e-commerce company says it will produce and acquire original movies to release in theaters and on Prime Instant Video. The company is aiming for 12 movies a year.

Facebook…

The company is working on voice-to-text transcription for its Facebook Messenger product, the Wall Street Journal reports. Messenger has over 500 million monthly users.

Google…

** The company’s YouTube division is planning to broadcast its own Super Bowl halftime show that features the online video site’s own stars, Bloomberg reports.

** Google may also buy mobile-payments company Softcard from AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile USA for at least $50 million, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Hewlett-Packard…

Britian’s Serious Fraud Office ended its investigation of Hewlett-Packard’s acquisition of Autonomy saying that there wasn’t enough evidence to convict any party of wrongdoing, the New York Times reports.

Cybercrime Blotter

The NSA broke into North Korea’s networks back in 2010, the New York Times reports, which in part led the government to believe that North Korea was behind the massive Sony hack.

Someone spied on Outlook users in China. People trying to check their e-mail received error messages because someone had launched a man-in-the-middle attack, the Verge reports. Whoever hacked those accounts was able to monitor and collect mail for a full day.

British intelligence agents gathered journalists’ emails. E-mail from the BBC, Reuters, the Guardian, the New York Times, Le Monde, the Sun, NBC and the Washington Post were saved by GCHQ as part of the agency’s bulk surveillance program, the Guardian reports.

Media Files

AOL is planning to close underperforming websites and layoff staff as part of a larger corporate restructuring, reports TechCrunch.

Dreamworks Animation is planning layoffs and the round could be bigger than the 350 layoffs that occurred in 2013, the Los Angeles Times reports.

The New York Times is hiring a native advertising team, reports Capital New York.

News and Notes

Republicans are warming to President Obama’s net neutrality stance, the New York Times reports.

France wants to work with Germany to get rid of Internet content related to terrorism. The Wall Street Journal reports that French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve is meeting with German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière on Tuesday to discuss ways get tech firms to remove content more quickly.

The engineer who forced a bigger settlement in the wage fixing case wants more money, reports the Wall Street Journal. Now that Adobe, Apple, Intel and Google have agreed to pay $415 million to settle a wage fixing, rather than $324.5 million, engineer Michael Devine says he deserves more money from the settlement proceeds because he objected to the original proposed amount. 

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

To contact the editor on this story:
Timothy L. O'Brien at tobrien46@bloomberg.net