Why Apple Bought Placebase

placebaseUpdate: And we have an answer – Google Maps Ditches Tele Atlas in Favor of Street View Cars and Crowdsourcing

I have no idea. But the title is catchy, and I’m hoping to learn the answer by a) writing out my thoughts and b) you. The transaction went down in July but was only uncovered recently, causing a day long brouhaha on the blog circuit, and now it’s been forgotten. As someone with a little knowledge in this area, I’m a tad more than intrigued. I’m just going to dive into a couple theories. They all focus on why Apple would move away from Google (I’m not even sure that is their intent):

  1. Current Data Limitations
    Google places restrictions on their data use. A clear example of this is Jobs’ “BYOM”, Bring Your Own Map, statement about turn-by-turn directions. Google will not allow their data to be used for such functionality.
  2. Cost Reduction
    Tiles aren’t free. Even to important and huge clients. Google went from a “per transaction” payment model to a “per tile” payment model and the entreprise level pricing isn’t exactly cheap. With the amount of Apple’s usage and even at a substantial discount, this cost is still probably in the tens to hundreds of millions per year.
  3. More Control
    Apple is a control freak. No need to argue this. Being reliant on an increasingly competing company can’t feel good for anyone, especially Apple. The threat of Google barring Apple from their maps or even significantly altering the usage deal has DOJ written all over. This isn’t going to happen and Apple isn’t worried. Google does have free reign to make their maps look like crap if it affects all customers which leads into the next point…
  4. Google Adding Data
    Just recently Google started adding advertisements PLUS user-generated content into iPhone apps. Wait, I thought one of the benefits of the enterprise license was to have the ability to remove ads. And wait, does this only affect iPhone apps? I think Google will come to their senses and flip off that UGC, unless you want to see it. The ad part is a bit odd and doesn’t jive with point 2 and 3 above.
  5. More Control, Redux
    Google doesn’t own the tiles, they are licensed. Tele Atlas provides the map information, and other services provide the satellite imagery (Digital Globe, GeoEye, USGS, TerraMetrics, and the list goes on). There are some interesting things to note here.
    Tele Atlas provides data to many vendors including Yahoo and Microsoft and probably Placebase. Tele Atlas provides the map information, not the tiles, so each vendor can make them look however they want through Tele Atlas’ proprietary API. The United States is a 5GB or so text file. Apple’s designers could make their maps look better than everything else on the market, without a doubt.
    The satellite data comes mainly from Digital Globe, but once you start zooming in, watch the copyright info on the lower right of the map – the data comes from many, many sources. Apple can easily strike deals with these same sources. Digital Globe is happy to point out their non-exclusivity with Google. But on the other hand Google seems to be in bed with GeoEye, launching a satellite together and all.
    Other data such as traffic and street view is proprietary to Google.
  6. Data Layers
    Placebase offers many layers of statistical data for their paid API and have won awards for their PolicyMap website. But if you look close enough, this is just tract data freely available from the US Census Bureau. Gathering and overlaying this data is a trivial task. In one of my previous companies, we built a much, much richer data set covering many more areas than Placebase offers. This was a hurculean task, but as a small startup, we pulled it off. So I think access to the data layers is moot here as it adds little value.

So what’s this all about then? My guess is that is has to do with Augmented Reality/Extended Mapping capabilites. This could be especially useful on the mythical tablet and could be even more useful for the collection of future Census Data. Not only in the US, but the rest of the world. It’s a little late for the 2010 Census though, so this idea is a tad suspicious.

I welcome all opinions, corrections, and comments on this as I really want to get to the bottom of Why Apple Bought Placebase.

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