Apple Senior Vice President of Mac Software Engineering Bertrand Serlet — widely considered the brains behind the Mac operating system — left the company three years ago “to focus less on products and more on science.”
It wasn’t really clear what he meant by that at the time.
A year later, Business Insider learned that Serlet spent much of his time after his departure working with other former Apple employees to launch a stealthy cloud startup in downtown Palo Alto, Calif., called Upthere.
In our initial report on Upthere, Business Insider found that it was working with Roger Bodamer, a former VP of operations and engineering at Apple, who previously worked at Oracle for 12 years. Since then, we’ve learned that Bodamer is in fact acting as CEO of Upthere.
Given the company’s stealth status, it was difficult to find out much about what Upthere was up to. Based on some job postings and a trademark request, we knew that they were involved with “cloud hosting” and “cloud computing” with “a clear vision of a core technology for Cloud OS” — phrases that do very little to describe what Upthere actually does.
Now that the company has been around for nearly three years, there’s a lot more evidence available that hints at what Upthere is working on.
Upthere has recruited engineers from Apple with experience making cloud apps for users.
We know that both Mac and iOS will be major platforms for Upthere’s eventual cloud product. Ten months after Serlet’s departure from Apple, Upthere recruited Chris Bourdon, Apple’s senior product line manager in charge of Mac OS X marketing for the first seven iterations of the operating system, to serve as VP of product marketing.
In May 2013, Upthere hired another longtime Apple vet, Matthew Davidson, from sound recognition startup SoundHound. During his time at Apple between 2003 and 2011, Davidson was responsible for the creation of Cloud SDKs for the Mac, bringing the Mail iOS app from the iPhone to the iPad, and creating the prototypes for cloud-based photo sharing on the iPhone and iPad.
A month later, Upthere hired Daniel Feldman, another Apple engineer responsible for a consumer-facing cloud product. According to former Apple senior software engineer Mihailo Despotovi and this Hive Colab interview with Feldman last summer, he was one of the developers on the first version of the Mac App Store app and implemented many protocols that tied the iTunes Store to iCloud. Feldman’s LinkedIn profile claims that both he and Bourdon are named as inventors on a patent filed in late 2012 titled “Assigning Electronically Purchased Items of Content to Users” from their time at Apple.
In addition to Davidson and Feldman, another Apple vet spent time helping Upthere to develop its cloud frameworks: Haim Grosman. Grosman spent eight months at Upthere last year serving as the lead developer of frameworks for iOS and OS X — or, as he claims, “building a stairway to … The Cloud.” At Apple, Grosman wrote the APIs for iOS that let developers make location-aware apps.
Beyond the engineering and product marketing DNA Upthere has drawn from Apple, it’s likely that some of Apple’s penchant for design will be visible in Upthere’s eventual cloud product as well.
In the last quarter of 2013, Upthere hired two user interface designers who worked at Apple from 2009 to 2013. Timm Michaud worked on the user interface team for Apple’s Online Store, preparing the site for the introduction of new products and developed community feedback features.
Android will also be a major platform.
Considering all of the former Apple employees at the company, it wouldn’t be surprising if Upthere only built its cloud to work with Mac OS X and iOS.
In fact, Upthere seems to be taking the design of its Android functionality very seriously as well. In August 2012, the company hired Martin Brehovsky, an engineer who specialises in “designing and developing next generation of user interfaces focusing on the smartphone” and previously worked at Research In Motion and Sun Microsystems, to develop for Android.
Upthere went on to make two more important hires for its Android team in 2013. In September, Upthere hired Joaquim Vergès, the Android developer best known for designing Falcon Pro, one of the best Twitter clients available on Android. Two months later they recruited Fabien Devos from Facebook, where Devos had worked as an Android developer since being “acquihired” as part of Facebook acquiring the startup Lightbox.com (which has since been shut down) in 2012.
Upthere has lots of experience with “big data,” too.
Whether it’s true or not, many in Silicon Valley believe the following: Apple is better at design, whereas Google is better at services and making things in the cloud that work they way we expect them to.
While the high concentration of Apple veterans might suggest that Upthere would follow in that company’s footsteps, there’s another group within the company that gives the impression that, whatever Upthere’s working on, it’s prioritizing scalability, speed and security.
Alex Kushnir, one of the founders at Upthere, previously founded Kazeon Systems, a provider of “content aware” information storage systems that he sold to EMC in 2009. After that, he moved onto 10gen, the company that would go onto become MongoDB, whose database technology powers big media powerhouses like this site and The New York Times.
Upthere CEO Roger Bodamer, who worked with Kushnir at 10gen, also had a more enterprise/cloud-focused background before working at Apple/founding Upthere. For almost 13 years starting in 1990, he worked at distributed computing for databases and application servers at Oracle.
Besides the founders’ backgrounds in the cloud and enterprise, some of Upthere’s infrastructure and security hires sport incredibly impressive resumeés.
Sonya Rikhtverchik, who started at Upthere in January 2013, was the infrastructure engineering manager at Facebook who led the engineering teams behind its massive back end overhaul that let its servers handle 70% more traffic on the same hardware and helped add those contributions to Facebook’s open-source Open Compute Project.
The company has also been hiring security and cryptography experts, from VMware vet Matt Richards in 2012 to Sachin Rawat, a former Microsoftie who used to perform security analysis and review for over 60 applications across different divisions of the company from Microsoft India’s R&D team.
Upthere is taking money from the same guys as Nest.
In November 2012, Upthere added a page to its site detailing the top team members and investors.
Of the three investors listed on the page, Upthere shares two with Nest, another startup founded by a former big name at Apple: Kleiner Perkins and Google Ventures.
The last, Elevation Partners, is a large private equity firm that generally makes big investments in leading players in media and the consumer space, like Facebook and Yelp. The firm’s investment — which isn’t listed on Elevation’s portfolio page — would appear out of place at the company, if not for the fact that Elevation Managing Director and co-founder Fred Anderson served as executive vice president and chief financial officer at Apple from 1996 to 2004, a period that overlaps with the years many of Upthere’s execs were still at the company.
While Anderson’s connections to Upthere make us curious about the firm’s investment — did they invest a large sum like they usually do even though it’s an early-stage startup? — Kleiner Perkins has been the most public with its involvement. John Doerr, the Kleiner Perkins partner who led the firm’s investment in Twitter, currently holds a spot on Upthere’s board of directors.
He seems to be taking a rather active role in providing resources for the startup: two of Upthere’s younger software engineers were teaching assistants at University of Pennsylvania who were originally recruited through Kleiner Perkins engineering fellowships, while professional C-level executive headhunter Alex Lebow claims to work closely with Kleiner Perkins and to have recruited an executive for Upthere on his LinkedIn profile.
What is Upthere actually working on?
Since Upthere is still currently operating in stealth mode, we don’t know for sure.
The fact that Elevation Partners and John Doerr — who typically invest in big media/consumer products and are looking for the “Next Big Thing,” respectively — are among the publicly known investors suggests that this isn’t a product that’s going to be primarily targeted at businesses.
Except for a possible Web interface, Windows doesn’t even seem to be platform the company is looking at as a release target. Every single job posting, Twitter profile, GitHub account, and LinkedIn resumé we’ve seen has only mentioned Mac OS X, iOS or Android. If this were a cloud platform for businesses, it wouldn’t make sense to build for every platform but Microsoft’s.
With that said, it does sound like Upthere’s product will also serve as a platform that others can build from. The engineers the startup recruited from Apple were responsible for building the software frameworks that third-party developers use to make apps for Mac and iOS, and Bertrand Serlet has decades of experience building innovative operating systems at Apple and Xerox PARC. If he really does have “a clear vision of a core technology for Cloud OS,” then its big reveal may be something along the lines of Amazon’s Workspaces.