One of technology’s time-honored traditions is getting intellectual property by buying companies rich in ideas but poor in cash or connections. Burroughs Corp., for example, got the Nixie tube in 1955 by buying Haydu Brothers Laboratories. And Apple famously acquired a smart new operating system (and “reacquired” Steve Jobs) in 1996, when it bought NeXT Computer. Twitter got a search engine when it bought Summize in 2008.
Google has embraced this trend with a vengeance, buying more than 170 companies over the past 13 years. Voice over Internet Protocol, video hosting, Web analytics, mobile devices, GPS navigation, and visual search are just a few of the examples of technologies that were absorbed into the Google empire. Most of these purchases were trumpeted with press conferences, press releases, and ample news coverage.
And yet, one of Google’s most strategic acquisitions has mysteriously been actively blocked from public view. An investigation by IEEE Spectrum has uncovered the surprising fact that Google’s innovative self-driving car and the revolutionary Street View camera technology that preceded it were largely built by 510 Systems, a tiny start-up in Berkeley, Calif.