Apple has bought a small software startup that lets smartphones and tablets pinpoint their location indoors using nearby Wi-Fi signals. The move apparently is part of the company's efforts to expand and strengthen its location services, which it has developed as an alternative to Google Maps.
The acquisition was reported over the weekend via The Wall Street Journal's Digits blog, which says Apple paid "around $20 million" for WiFiSlam, a Silicon Valley company founded in April 2011. Apple confirmed the buy, but declined further comment according to blog reporter Jessica Lessin.
A post by the WiFiSlam founders at AngelList says the company's technology lets a smartphone "pinpoint its location (and the location of your friends) in real-time to 2.5m accuracy using only ambient WiFi signals that are already present in buildings." The code and algorithms are intended as a toolset for software developers to create a new breed of applications to "engage with users at the scale that personal interaction actually takes place." The possible uses range from "step-by-step indoor navigation, to product-level retail customer engagement, to proximity-based social networking."
[ BACKGROUND: As navigation looks indoors, new uses appear ]
These next-generation applications combine precise position, user identity and interests, and a kind of "situational awareness" of users and their friends and acquaintances.
Of the four WiFiSlam founders, three are Stanford University grads, two of them very recent: Joseph Huang, who was a software intern at Google just before launching WiFiSlam, and whose co-op developer experience while at Stanford included robotics, computer vision and embedded systems, according to his LinkedIn profile; and Jessica Tsoong, whose profile shows a three-month stint as an analyst with Silverado Power, and 10 months as a global markets analyst with Merrill Lynch.
The other Stanford grad is David Millman, with a master's degree in computer science, specifically in artificial intelligence. He has published work on indoor positioning, and is founder of Millman Games, focused on real-time Web games, according to his AngelList entry. The last founder is Darin Tay, a 2009 graduate of the University of Waterloo, Ontario, with a software internship at Altera, where he apparently met Huang; Tay's last job was 21 months ago with Google as a software engineer.
WiFiSlam is one of many young companies trying to make use of the fast-growing number of Wi-Fi radios to plot positions and track locations. One of the best-known, and among the first to successfully commercialize Wi-Fi location services, is Boston-based SkyHook Wireless. Its technology was used in early iPhones, but was dropped in April 2011, when Apple incorporated its own Wi-Fi location databases in the then-latest version of its OS.
Traditional GPS location services rely on a chip that picks up a signal from satellites in stationary orbit. But indoors and sometimes in dense urban locations that signal can be hard to acquire or to hold. Using data linked to hundreds or thousands of stationary Wi-Fi points, and possibly in conjunction with GPS data, it's possible to create a real-time awareness of individual mobile devices with always-on Wi-Fi radios. If that awareness is also linked with information about the user's identity, the combination can be used for personalized data services and actions.
Apple's foray into mapping and navigation, eliminating its reliance on the Google Maps platform, was publicly released in October 2012, with the release of Apple Maps in iOS 5. It was not well received by many, who found it inaccurate and incomplete compared to the more mature Google offering. In a rare move for the company, Apple CEO Tim Cook apologized for the user experience and vowed significant and fast improvements. But without backtracking, the letter made it clear that Apple remains committed to controlling its own location services platform.
John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World. Twitter: @johnwcoxnww Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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