Netflix’s “The Billion Dollar Code” may not be a show that is trending.
But, boy oh boy, is it an unflinchingly bold one. It is an underdog story about a start-up company taking on a tech giant, sans the victorious ending.
Nevertheless, it is one that piques curiosity and, at the same time, casts a questionable light on how global organisations operate, especially when it comes to hiding behind red tape.
This four-part series tells the story of two idealistic students - one an artist named Carsten Schlüter and the other a socially awkward hacker named Juri Müller - from Berlin who, in 1993, embarked on an ambitious project to create Terravision, which allowed the user to travel anywhere in the world from their computer.
They had the financial backing of Deutsche Telekom Investment who, despite their initial scepticism, came on board.
Their invention was a hit when it launched at the Kyoto conference in Japan.
Of course, today, most users are more familiar with it as Google Earth. But the algorithm used was allegedly identical to that of Terravision, which is what led to the Art+Com vs Google lawsuit over patent infringement in 2014.
Created by Oliver Ziegenbalg and Robert Thalheim, the opening frames of the first episode offered a glimpse into how the digital era was shaped by truly brilliant inventions like computers and smartphones, which were loved and cursed.
The recent global outage of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp are indicative of the latter part of that statement.
The creators ingeniously touched on how Silicon Valley’s pioneers in the tech space, started out.
We see footage of a young Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos.
There’s a snippet of an interview where Gates says, “Everyone will use the computer as a very important tool”.
It touched on the success stories bearing a similar rite of passage, where a few computer nerds sit together and build on an idea which, at first, seems absurd, improbable even, but because it is so new and compelling, it is simply unstoppable.
And by the time these guys are 30, they are billionaires, who, given their accomplishments, are made to feel like the true masters of this world.
Sadly, Carsten and Juri didn’t enjoy the same success. In many ways, they were robbed of their success.
Their ideas were so ahead of the times that they were laughed at when they approached investors.
It didn’t help that the country was a technological desert while the US was flourishing.
During preparation for the trial, Carsten and Juri, both no longer on speaking terms and so their testimony is taken separately, unpack the events that led to the birth of their start-up company with a motley crew of hackers, how they created Terravision within a year, unpacking the litany of upsets along the way.
In the flashbacks, Carsten and Juri were clearly a formidable team. Carsten was quick-thinking, especially when it came to pitching ideas, and Juri was their ace programmer.
The success of Terravision got them invited to Silicon Valley, got them excited about the future, and saw them cross paths with influential people in the tech industry.
Their trusting nature proved to be their Achilles heel. They put a lot of stock in someone who was meant to be their stepping stone to greater things.
Unfortunately, what started as a gentleman’s agreement with someone they considered a friend devolved into an act of betrayal that led to the friends eventually parting ways.
Of course, the burden of proof lay with the legal team of Art+Com. But the trial wasn’t without challenges, emotional outbursts and disappointment.
In an interview with Variety, Thalheim said: “We lived in Berlin during that period. We remember that time – we were there! In stories set in the Wild West, there is always the good side and the bad, but there are also no rules. The strongest make up their own, which is what happened here too.”
Ziegenbalg added: “The most powerful cattle baron takes the law in his own hands and that’s Google, basically. These guys, they were like these poor farmers, going: ‘But this is our land!’”
At the end of the day, Carsten and Juri didn’t win their $700 million lawsuit.
But they did walk away heroic losers nonetheless as they got to tell their story to the world.
“The Billion Dollar Code” is currently streaming on Netflix.