Over the last decade, Apple has grown into a company that excels at making smart acquisitions, taking risky bets on emerging technologies, and then refining those acquisitions and technology into compelling consumer products. The next few years will tell us if Apple's corporate culture (and new CEO Tim Cook) can preserve what was obviously a strength of Steve Jobs: The ability to look into the future a bit farther than others, or to see significance in combining things that others have missed. To see where the puck is going, not where it's been.
A recent example of this is Apple's acquisition of Siri, Inc., which became the source behind Apple's revolutionary Siri voice assistant which premiered in the iPhone 4S. Siri isn't perfect -- and is effectively a beta product, with its own share of glitches and unscheduled downtime -- but it's also the best attempt yet at workable voice recognition software, and points to a future where humans will be able to communicate with computers and other smart devices simply by talking to them.
To be fair, Microsoft has publicly demonstrated functional tablet computers, smartphones, and voice recognition software years in advance of the iPad, iPhone, and Siri. Yet Microsoft's attempts were often half-steps, products that showed promise but needed more time and development before becoming truly viable consumer products. In his collection of short biographies called American Sketches, Walter Isaacson -- also the author of the widely-acclaimed Steve Jobs biography -- related how Bill Gates once joked that he should rename the group responsible for speech recognition at Microsoft the "wreck a nice beach" group, since that's what their software spit out when someone said "recognize speech."
In my observation Microsoft's product development process is more rational and data-driven, while Apple – under Job’s often irrational quest for perfection – pushed ahead to finally produce industry-defining products like the iPhone, the iPad, and Siri. I'm not saying Microsoft's more analytical approach is flawed, but it doesn't seem to lend itself to the creation of risky, genre-defining products. Jobs proved that sometimes it pays to ignore the accountants, disregard the data, shelve the customer satisfaction scores, and take a blind leap into the big unknown.
In an article for the New Yorker, Tipping Point author Malcolm Gladwell recently likened Jobs to a great tweaker of ideas rather than a true inventor in the same vein as Einstein and Edison. While I believe the influence of Jobs goes beyond refining and perfecting the ideas of others, Gladwell does have a point: In all of the aforementioned examples, Microsoft stopped pushing ahead in those categories, eventually deciding that the effort to perfect the product wasn’t worth the return on investment. Or perhaps those products were victims of the ongoing, internecine internal struggles between the multitude of product groups at Microsoft for resources and corporate attention. Contrast that with Apple: Jobs thought ahead, poured vast resources into what he thought would pay large dividends, and the iPod, iPad, and Siri are all results of those decisions. While some companies have trouble thinking past the next quarter, Apple has proven to be a true master of the long game.
Part of that long game undoubtedly involves mapping and navigation software, as Apple recently gobbled up C3 Technologies, a small Swedish firm that Apple quietly acquired a few weeks ago for at least $260 million. Most news reports mentioned that C3 technologies provided mapping software. But a closer look reveals that C3 specialized in some impressive technology that leverages multiple satellite images from a variety of angle to create stunningly realistic 3D maps. Here's how the technology was described from a C3 Technologies press release in early 2011:
C3 Unlimited Oblique offers 10-centimeter accuracy in every position, making it possible to accurately overlay roads, addresses, points of interest, company logos or advertisements...unlike most other commercial or even government-targeted oblique solutions on the market, which capture and process images of a geographic area from just four different views, all of the maps in C3’s new line offer 24 different oblique views, which means more crucial data is available for simulation, planning and precise measurement of distances, heights, perimeters, lengths, and widths.
I've embedded a still image (and a YouTube video) below showing the C3 technology in action.
A still from a YouTube video of C3 Technologies 3D mapping technology in action. (YouTube video posted by Netbook News.)
As is the case with tablet computers and voice recognition, I think Apple is playing the long game with mapping software and will leverage all of their recent acquisitions to push the mapping category in some way. Imagine a true 3D mapping services that can not only direct you to a street address, but perhaps route you to the correct office suite on the 15th floor? Or Siri-powered turn-by-turn navigation that doesn't just show you stills of what your destination looks like, but provides you with a streaming, 3D video road map as you approach your destination? MacRumors posted information that indicates C3 was indeed working on street views and interior views as a next step for their product, so it’s logical to assume that a future priority from Apple will be to remove their reliance on Google’s mapping technology.
Here are all of the mapping-related acquisitions by Apple just in the last 24 months:
- PlaceBase - Mapping software
- Poly9 - Mapping software
- C3 Technologies - 3D environment mapping software
Placebase specialized in presenting map-related data in new ways, while Poly9 had developed cross-browser 3D globe technology that was used by several others sites, like Skype. Pooling the resources of all three of those companies seems like just the sort of thing that Apple would need to do to mount a challenge to the now ubiquitous Google mapping services.
What are your thoughts on Apple's recent spate of company acquisitions in the mapping arena? Let me know what you think by adding a comment to this blog post or starting up a conversation on Twitter.