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Monday, March 25, 2013

With Acquisition, Apple Looks Indoors for Future of Maps

It appears Apple is thinking seriously about what the mobile maps of tomorrow will look like, not just fixing the maps service it has today.

The company has acquired WiFiSlam, a start-up company that helps to improve the accuracy of indoor maps and other services by locating the user’s position inside a building more accurately. Indoor maps look like they could become a new battleground between big companies seeking a cartographical edge on their rivals.

Google is pouring resources into an indoor maps initiative to make it easier to find stores, bathrooms and other landmarks inside shopping malls, airports, large department stores and transit stations. The company says it has indoor maps for 10,000 locations worldwide already, including airports, Ikea stores, hotels, libraries, museums and one of the most bewildering kinds of labyrinths known to man â€" Las Vegas casinos.

WiFiSlam could give Apple some of the smarts it needs to make iPhones better navigation devices when they are under a roof. WiFiSlam says its technology can pinpoint the location of a mobile device to “2.5m accuracy using only ambient WiFi signals that are already present in buildings.” Locating a mobile user precisely on a map indoors can be tricky because the GPS signals that help with navigation don’t usually penetrate walls and windows.

The Wall Street Journal first reported news of the Apple deal over the weekend, saying the acquisition was worth about $20 million. Steve Dowling, a spokesman for Apple, repeated the statement that Apple typically releases when news surfaces of its acquisitions, most of which are so small that they don’t trigger set off disclosure rules: “Apple buys smaller technology companies from time to time, and we generally do not discuss our purpose or plans.”

Apple’s maps service was widely criticized for inaccurate addresses, mangled aerial images of landmarks and other glitches when the company released it in September, leading to a rare public apology by Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive.

Mr. Cook vowed to improve the service over time, and it looks like the company has fixed a number of problems with the service through steady updates to its maps. Marcus Thielking, co-founder of Skobbler, a mobile navigation service that competes with Apple Maps, said the aerial imagery of landmarks like the Statue of Liberty has become much better in his use of the Apple service.

“I do think they have improved,” Mr. Thielking said. ”I think they’ve put a lot of effort into it.”

Although he doesn’t believe the acquisition of WiFiSlam will help Apple much with its continuing effort to improve its outdoor maps, Mr. Thielking said it shows that the future of maps is on Apple’s mind. “This is about them taking the next step,” he said.