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Notes from Weather Underground: a Paleo-Google Enterprise Gets Bought

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2012


On Monday, the Weather Channel snapped up its key rival on the net, a company called Weather Underground. Millions of people go to wunderground.com, the newly purchased sight, but never type on those letters. Weather Underground is always one of the top search destinations for queries about the weather in various locations, and people have learned to click on its links because it delivers solid information without a distracting profusion of ads.

But the Google connection goes much deeper than search. The president of Weather Underground is Alan Steremberg. But in the mid-1990s he was a grad student at Stanford, and rooming with a guy named Sergey Brin. When Brin and his partner Larry Page began developing a nascent search engine, they needed help, and had some NSF funding to pay for it. So in 1996, Steremeberg and another student, Scott Hassan, took part-time jobs to work on what was then called BackRub, a project that in 1998 became a separate company called Google.

By then Steremberg was gone. But at one point, he was a part of a foursome that revolutionized search. In The Plex relates how all four went to a meeting at a Palo Alto sushi restaurant with Joe Kraus and Graham Spencer to discuss selling BackRub to their company, Excite. The gangup was part of Larry’s strategy: “They had two so we sent four,” Hassan told me. But Excite didn’t buy. And now Kraus and Spencer work for Google.

Steremberg and and Hassan never did work for Google. (John Battelle, in his book “The Search” referred to them as the “missing Beatles.)” Hassan joined a startup called eGroups. He now heads Willow Garage, a robotics company. Sergey is a big supporter.

Steremberg had already been involved with Weather Underground since the early 1990s when it emerged from the Interent-based weather database at the University of Michigan. (The name was an homage to the sixties radical group associated with University.) In 1995 Steremberg and the other co-founders had broken it off from Michigan as a separate company. So BackRub was just a student job for him. Steremberg left around the time Hassan departed. In 1998 he became president of Weather Underground.

When Google got its first funding in 1998, Sergey and Larry made sure to give Hassan and Steremberg some equity. And now Steremberg presumably has equity in the Weather Channel.

5 Comments

  • Steven — there’s yet another Google connection, here. And one that is arguably more important to Google’s current operations than the personal and historical info you’ve cited.

    Awhile back, The Weather Channel’s site — weather.com — switched to Bing maps…one of several major websites to do so. But Weather Underground still uses Google Maps for their popular ‘Wundermap’ service. And in their press release, TWC made a point of saying they planned to keep Wundermap, after the acquisition.

  • I think any of us who have been engaged with technology in some way for the past 25-30 years eventually become a missing Beatle, with our own lists of coulda-shoulda-woulda’s. Great story. But I already knew this because I read your book!

  • So many connections! I’m glad someone is writing about them. It would’ve been so easy for these things to be forgotten.

  • ALways thought Larry Page’s brother (whose name escapes me) was also one of the WU founders. True?

  • Interesting Google background/history. Enjoyed reading it. :)

Leave a comment to Fred Vogelstein