The new frontier in digital mapping is indoors. This week, Apple is joining the trend by buying a company that specializes in indoor mapping.
The Silicon Valley start-up, WifiSLAM, provides technology for Android apps that can map the interior of buildings with a resolution down to 8 feet. According to news reports, the price of the acquisition was about $20 million. WifiSLAM had been developing an iOS version, which was discontinued after Apple disabled Wi-Fi scanning in version 5 of iOS.
Google has begun to offer maps of indoor locations such as shopping malls and airports to Android users of its Map app, but not to iOS users. WifiSLAM's co-founders include former Google software engineering team intern Joseph Huang.
Samsung, Nokia, Qualcomm
Indoor mapping presents its own set of unique challenges. First, there's the actual layout and related data. Then there's the fact that traditional GPS technology does not work well inside a building.
For the first problem, Google frequently uses data derived from floor plans. For the second, WifiSLAM's approach is to use Wi-Fi signals already inside the building, in tandem with the compass and accelerometer in the device. It has licensed the technology to other indoor mapping developers and to makers of apps designed for retail stores.
In addition to helping users quickly find their airport gate, or helping one navigate a giant mall, interior mapping apps could also be used to steer customers to on-the-spot at a mall store they are passing at the time.
Other major companies are also moving indoors. Samsung Electronics, Nokia and Qualcomm, for instance, have said they will work jointly to develop indoor location services that employ both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.
For the Technology
Avi Greengart, a Current Analysis analyst who says he frequently uses indoor mapping apps whenever he's inside a big building in L.A., noted that Apple sometimes makes an acquisition for the technology, sometimes to integrate a service, or sometimes for the people. In this case, he said, it appears to be primarily for the technology of interior geolocation.
He noted that, given the derision that accompanied the release of Apple Maps with iOS 6, Apple has to make sure that interior mapping fulfills the company's "basic brand promise -- our stuff just works."
In iOS 6, Apple Maps was intended to replace the Maps app by one of Apple's competitors, Google. Apple's reason at the time was that Google's app didn't provide free, step-by-step, voice-guided directions. Google Maps had been part of the iPhone since that smartphone was launched, but was banned with the launch of Apple Maps. Following the storm of criticism about Apple's app, due to massive numbers of factual, visual and direction errors, Google Maps has been allowed back on the platform and has since been heavily downloaded.
Apple has issued a rare apology by its CEO, Tim Cook, who promised that it is working to rectify the app's shortcomings, and it has fired two of the executives that had oversight of Maps.