A prickly patriot
复杂的爱国者

2020.9

 
A secretive software-maker says hello to the stockmarket—and waves goodbye to Silicon Valley
一家神秘的软件公司向股市问好,并挥手告别硅谷 

 

Data wizardry “ONE NEVER really knows who one’s enemy is.” The words of Jürgen Habermas, a noted Frankfurt School philosopher, are a good point of departure for understanding Palantir Technologies. On August 25th the controversial software firm, named after a magical orb in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” that lets users see and speak across space and time, filed the paperwork to list on the New York Stock Exchange. Its direct offer of existing shares to public investors, without raising fresh capital, could happen within a month.
“你永远无法真正知道自己的敌人是谁。”要理解Palantir科技(Palantir Technologies),法兰克福学派著名哲学家尤尔根·哈贝马斯(Jürgen Habermas)这句话是一个很好的出发点。8月25日,这家备受争议的软件公司递交了在纽约证券交易所上市的申请。Palantir这个名字源自托尔金小说《指环王》里的一个魔球,用这颗球能跨时空会面交谈。它可能会在一个月内直接向公众投资者发售现有股票,而不会筹集新资金。
The company sells programs that gather disparate data and organise them into something usable for decision-makers, from soldiers in Afghanistan to executives at energy firms. More than a technological project, it is a philosophical, even political one. In the early 2000s its co-founder and boss, Alex Karp (who used to sit on the board of The Economist’s parent company), wrote a dissertation about aggression in politics at Frankfurt’s Goethe University, though not under Mr Habermas, as is often claimed. And Palantir itself is a child of the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001, which America’s sundry law-enforcement outfits failed to avert because they did not share data. In a preface to the prospectus, bleak by the upbeat standards of the genre, Mr Karp writes of government agencies that “faltered” and crises that “expose the systemic weaknesses of the institutions on which we depend”. Fixing these shortcomings is the company’s raison d’être. It could prove lucrative. But it invites attacks from rivals and critics.
这家公司销售的程序可以汇集互不相干的数据,把它们整理成决策者可用的信息,服务对象既有驻阿富汗士兵,也有能源公司的高管。这不仅是一个技术项目,更是一个哲学甚至是政治项目。本世纪初,公司的联合创始人及老板亚历克斯·卡普(Alex Karp,曾是《经济学人》母公司的董事)在法兰克福歌德大学写了一篇关于政治中的侵略性的博士论文,虽然这篇文章并不像人们常说的那样由哈贝马斯指导。而且Palantir本身是2001年911恐怖袭击事件的产物,当时美国形形色色的执法机构因为没有共享数据而没能避免这场灾难。以招股书一贯乐观积极的口吻衡量,Palantir的这份可说阴暗沉重。卡普在序言里描写了“摇摇欲坠”的政府机构和“暴露了我们所依赖的机构的系统性弱点”的危机。纠正这些缺陷是这家公司存在的意义。这也许会带来丰厚的利润,但它招来了竞争对手和批评人士的攻击。
Like most startups that plan to go public these days, Palantir is haemorrhaging red ink. The 17-year-old firm has yet to turn a profit. Last year it lost $580m on revenue of $742m. It spends more on sales and marketing than on research and development (see chart). But its venture-capital backers, who have poured $3bn into the firm over the years, most recently valuing it at perhaps $26bn, can draw comfort from things moving in the right direction. In the first half of 2020 revenue rose by 49%, year on year, while losses got smaller. Sales may exceed $1bn for the full year, thanks to the use of Palantir’s products to analyse pandemic data. It will vie with Snowflake, another data business about to list, for the year’s biggest software flotation.
像最近大多数计划上市的创业公司一样,Palantir也在大笔亏损。这家17岁的公司还没开始盈利。去年该公司营收7.42亿美元,亏损5.8亿美元。它在销售和市场营销上的投入高于研发(见图表)。风险投资商多年来向该公司投入了30亿美元,最近对它的估值可能在260亿美元。或许能让他们稍觉安慰的是,有些事情正朝着对的方向走。今年上半年,公司收入同比增长了49%,亏损也减少了。Palantir的产品被用来分析疫情数据,这可能有助于其全年销售额突破10亿美元。它将与另一家即将上市的数据公司雪花(Snowflake)竞争年度规模最大的软件公司上市案。
Palantir’s longer-term prospects are murkier. Successful corporate-software firms develop programs and services that can be offered without much customisation to many clients. This is trickier in the data business, where every company has a unique digital footprint. When Palantir got going, it was in effect a professional-services firm, chiefly creating bespoke data-analysis systems for the likes of the CIA and the Department of Defence. In recent years it has developed more generic products for corporate clients. But its scepticism of standardisation means it continues to deploy plenty of engineers to tweak them. This increases costs and is likely to limit how big and profitable it can get, says Mark Moerdler of Bernstein, a brokerage.
Palantir的长期前景更看不清楚。成功的企业软件公司开发的程序和服务无需太多定制就能提供给众多客户。但这在数据这一块更加棘手,因为每家公司都有自己独特的数字足迹。Palantir成立之初实则是一家专业服务公司,主要为美国中情局和国防部等机构定制数据分析系统。近年它为企业客户开发了更多通用产品。但它对标准化持怀疑态度,这就意味着要继续安排大量工程师来微调产品。经纪公司盛博的马克·默尔德勒(Mark Moerdler)认为,这增加了成本,很可能会限制其规模和盈利能力。
Palantir’s origins bring other challenges, too. Because it came of age before the rise of computing clouds, its software often still inhabits customers’ data centres, making it less nimble than younger cloud-based rivals like C3.ai and Databricks. Working for the government, particularly its spookier agencies, has also created a secretive and proprietary culture that is not an easy fit with the sort of partnerships that other tech firms often successfully use to expand their business. And it remains heavily reliant on government contracts. Between January and June 55% of revenue came from official sources, up from 45% in the same period last year. It has only 125 clients, with the biggest three (unnamed) ones accounting for nearly a third of sales.
Palantir的出身背景也带来了其他挑战。因为它在云计算兴起之前就已经成熟,所以它的软件往往仍安装在客户的数据中心里,相比C3.ai和Databricks这样基于云计算的年轻竞争对手,它没那么灵活。为政府尤其是那些鬼魅般的情报机构工作,也生成了一种神秘而专有的文化,这和其他科技公司经常成功用来扩展业务的那种合作关系并不容易契合。此外它仍然严重依赖政府合同。今年1月至6月,公司收入的55%来自政府渠道,高于去年同期的45%。它只有125个客户,其中最大的三家(未透露名称)占到销售额的近三分之一。
Closeness to the state also points to Palantir’s biggest risk: politics. From its post-9/11 beginnings it has seen itself as an instrument of national security. “If we are going to ask someone to put themselves in harm’s way, we believe that we have a duty to give them what they need to do their job,” Mr Karp writes in his missive. One of his co-founders is Peter Thiel, a famed venture capitalist of strong libertarian bent with an authoritarian streak—and an occasional supporter of President Donald Trump.
与政府关系密切也体现出Palantir最大的风险:政治。自它在911恐袭事件后诞生开始,它就自视为维护国家安全的工具。“如果我们要请某人把自己置身于危险境地,我们相信我们有责任为他们提供他们工作所需的东西。”卡普在招股书里写道。他的联合创始人之一彼得·泰尔是著名的风险投资家,在强烈的自由意志主义倾向中带着些独裁色彩,有时会支持特朗普。
This—combined with work for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a federal agency despised by progressives for its heavy-handed treatment of migrants, or the Pentagon’s Project Maven, to analyse drone footage—has made Palantir one of the most hated firms in left-leaning Silicon Valley. “I’ve had my favourite employees yell at me,” said Mr Karp earlier this year, from a barn in New Hampshire where he was self-isolating even before the pandemic. Some engineers have left. Others are demanding high salaries to remain; in the first half of the year Palantir paid $182m in stock-based compensation, 38% of revenue. Though being in bed with America’s law enforcers and spies won’t scare off other government customers, corporate clients may take fright, particularly abroad. As the prospectus concedes, “Our reputation and business may be harmed by news or social media coverage.”
除此之外,它为移民和海关执法局(ICE,一个因为严苛对待移民而被进步人士鄙视的联邦机构)服务,而且还为五角大楼的Maven项目(Project Maven)分析无人机视频,都让它在左倾的硅谷成了最招人恨的公司之一。“有些我最喜欢的员工对着我大喊大叫。”卡普在今年早些时候提到。当时他在新罕布什尔州的一个谷仓里办公,疫情爆发之前他就已经在那里自我隔绝了。有些工程师已经辞职走人。剩下的要求拿高薪才肯留下:今年上半年Palantir支付了1.82亿美元的员工股权激励,占公司收入的38%。尽管与美国的执法者和间谍同床共枕不会吓跑其他政府客户,却可能会吓到企业客户,尤其是国外企业。正如招股说明书里承认的,“新闻或社交媒体报道可能会损害我们的声誉和业务”。
Palantir, which has recently decamped from Silicon Valley to Denver, is trying to make a virtue of the culture clash. It paints itself as a patriotic problem-solver, eschewing the techno-Utopian pretensions of the West Coast’s engineering elite. They may know more than most about software, Mr Karp writes. “But they do not know more about how society should be organised or what justice requires.” That, he implies, is the role of elected governments; the prospectus rules out dealing with Communist China. An unusual sales pitch in tech. But a plausible one.
最近从硅谷搬到丹佛的Palantir想要利用文化冲突。它把自己描绘成一个能解决问题的爱国者,弃绝西海岸精英工程师那种技术乌托邦式的自命不凡。他们可能比大多数人都更了解软件,卡普写道。“但对于应该如何组织社会,或者实现正义需要什么,它们可不比别人懂得多。” 他暗示,这正是民选政府的作用;招股说明书排除了和共产党治下中国打交道的可能。在科技行业,这是一种不同寻常的推销手法。不过确实能言善道。