Apple quietly acquired a mapping firm called Placebase in early July. Watchers say that Apple needs its own mapping service in order to reduce its dependency on Google Maps, but there’s more to it than meets the eye.
Apple bought PlaceBase – all hush hush. Pushpin site taken offline. Hyperlocal iPhone?
Fred Lalonde is the founder of Openplaces, the service dedicated to “building the world’s largest database of travel information” by outsourcing maps via the Pushpin API, courtesy of a Los Angeles-based mapping startup called Placebase.
Weintraub then tracked down a LinkedIn profile belonging to PlaceBase’s former founder and CEO Jaron Waldman who is now apparently on board Apple’s “Geo Team.” Furthermore, the Computerworld blogger discovered that the former PlaceBase’s chief of technology Moran Ben-David is now also a part of Apple’s “Geo Team.”
Placebase: The ultimate mapping service
Commentators deem Placebase’s technology much better than Google’s. Take PolicyMap, a map aggregating service using the PushPin API to replicate common Google Maps features while adding deep customization options lacking in Google’s offering like private and public data sets, including commercial layers such as demographics and crime data.
PolicyMap is one of many Placebase clients who use the PushPin API for real estate, fleet tracking, traffic, etc. It’s worth mentioning that Google Maps tops out with directions and Street View, the two features that Placebase’s technology can’t do.
PlaceBase’s CEO pitches the mapping service that Apple acquired in July
No video? Watch it on Blip.TV
If Apple has in fact acquired Placebase, then Google Maps might be set for a serious run for its money. Common sense logic hints that Apple wants to reduce its dependency on Google for map tiles. Apple currently uses Google Maps as a go-to source for visualizing location data in the iPhone’s Maps app, third-party iPhone apps using the in-app mapping API, and the Places feature found in iPhoto for Macs. If not for a much more detailed and richer visualization, Apple may have acquired Placebase for the three reasons outlined below.
REASON #1: Apple hates third-party ads in own apps
According to Anthony Avolio, director of the web analytics firm PM Digital, Google has begun putting location-based ads inside the iPhone’s Maps app. A screenshot copied in this article shows a sponsored link for a nearby restaurant injected directly in the search results within the Maps app. According to Avolio, sponsored links appear when you perform a search, at either the top or bottom of search results, and both in the map view and list view (denoted by a custom pushpin and yellow shade, respectively). Clicking the link brings the familiar details screen with the usual stuff plus a promo one-liner beneath the location label.
We can only speculate whether or not Google is sharing a portion of the click revenue with Apple in exchange for the ability to put sponsored links inside the Maps app. It’s worth mentioning that Apple allows ads embedded in third-party iPhone apps.
Apple wrote the Maps app so there’s no way any third-party advertising can be injected without Apple specifically allowing it. Google’s sponsored links inside the Maps app suggest some kind of a Google-Apple deal. If true, that’s a stark departure from Apple’s firm stance against an ad-supported business model.
For example, the $99 a year cloud service dubbed MobileMe is provided ad-free, as are all Apple products. If Apple allowed advertising inside the Maps app as a concession to get map tiles, then the company is right to innovate its way out of this deal by acquiring Placebase. If Apple had its own map tiles when it built the original iPhone, then Google wouldn’t have been able to bother iPhone users with advertising now, no matter how unobtrusive it is.
REASON #2: The B.Y.O.M catch
Apple’s right to use Google Maps’ tiles doesn’t extend to third parties, said Scott Forstall, Apple’s vice president of the iPhone software, during the iPhone OS 3.0 event early in March. When he debuted turn-by-turn directions and a new API that lets developers embed the Maps functionality (in-app maps) in own programs, he warned about the so-called B.Y.O.M. catch:
There’s one catch – it is B.Y.O.M. – Bring Your Own Maps. Due to licensing, we cannot pass on the right to use the built-in map tiles for turn-by-turn. But there are already a lot of developers out there who either own their own map tiles or have licensed them to use in turn-by-turn.
Of course, neither comes cheap. If Apple had its own mapping service, the B.Y.O.M. rule wouldn’t apply and Apple could feed its own map tiles to third-party apps. As a result, the iPhone would have had lots more map-enabled apps than it has today.
REASON #3: “User confusion”
Remember how Apple rejected the native Google Latitude app for iPhone? Google’s answer to the FCC’s question regarding the Google Voice rejection revealed how Apple thought that Google’s app replicated the Maps’s functionality, creating “user confusion.” Google later provided a workaround solution through a web app that runs inside mobile Safari, offering remarkably snappy performance.
As you can see, Apple likes controlling technologies that dictate the user experience. The mapping technology is the killer feature in many smartphones and the Maps app helped push the iPhone a lot. Maps and geolocation are still major features in the mobile space so it’s no wonder that Apple wants a mapping service of its own.
Do you think Apple should seek its way out of the dependency on third-party services like Google Maps? Has Apple acquired Placebase just to get the in-house mapping service for devices like the iPhone, iPod touch, and a rumored tablet? Or is the company plotting a Google Maps killer for desktop users? Would you use “Apple Maps” if it was better than Google’s offering? Do chime in with your comments below.
Click here to read this article by Christian Zibreg on Geek.com on Thursday, October 6th, 2009.