Indoor Apple? Why Apple Bought WiFiSlam.

wifislam_logoAccording to the Wall Street Journal, Apple has bought WiFiSlam, the indoor location  company for $20M and will now presumably be working to allow Apple iOS devices to self-locate indoors to within 2.5M accuracy in real-time.  Indoor location has been an active field for a couple years and Apple’s move will keep it in line with Google who has been working on that technology for a while as well.

If it all works as advertised, WiFiSlam gives “aisle-level” accuracy fast enough to let the consumer get relevant information before he or she moves on to another aisle. That’s the “2.5m in real-time” part and is a Holy Grail of sorts for indoor positioning because of its potential for retail targeting. They use ambient wireless signals from WiFi and Bluetooth which means that you don’t need to install a bunch of extra gear. This is not easy; a lot of companies have been banging away at this for a while.

So, why did Apple want this?  

The First Application will not be Maps

The WiFiSlam acquisition is being reported as Apple’s next step in advancing the Apple Maps product. That’s an obvious story line because of all the publicity on Apple Maps and the chance to dredge up Tim Cooks Map mea culpa yet again. I don’t think so.    

The Apple Maps team has fixed a lot of the early problems but I suspect that their resources will be best used on improving local search, not taking on the new challenge of indoor mapping. Indoor mapping involves a lot more than just location, including the integration of a complex and fragmented indoor map data base.  Although many article are making that jump, I doubt that’s Plan A. I think we’ll see it in Passport before we see it in Maps.

My Guess: Applications APIs and Passport

The real value of this technology on the Apple iOS platforms will be in offering an indoor location API to app developers  and combining it with a reminder service like Passport. That enables a rangle of applications developed for merchants and retailers that allow them to leverage their CRM data about their customers to either push offers to regular customers in store or just allow people to set reminders do get something when they are standing in front of it.  That may or may not require an indoor map but in any case, it pushes that issue out to the app developer where it can be addressed for the specific venue(s) rather than Apple’s Map team having to compile a wide ranging and ever-changing set of indoor maps.

That was the founder’s original plan and what attracted Don Dodge to the company as an investor according to an article in Venture Beat 6 months ago.  Of course, Apple can change from the founders’ intent but I don’t think they will.  There is too much potential in that.  By letting those apps save a location-tagged reminder in Passbook, you begin to get a proactive agent in the category of Google Now.

We’ll see in the next months I guess. Meanwhile, congratulations to co-founders Joseph Huang and Jessica Tsoong and their investors. And condolences to the many other indoor location companies that would have loved to get that exit.