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Report: Apple snagged Google Maps rival

Replacement, enhancement, or both?

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Apple reportedly - and quietly - purchased a Google Maps competitor two months ago, and has absorbed its founder into the mothership at One Infinite Loop.

Or so deduces Seth Weintraub over at Computerworld, who turned a July Tweet and a current LinkedIn profile into convincing evidence that Apple has acquired map-tech maker Placebase, along with its worldwide maps and API technology, and has hired its founder, Jaron Waldman.

In May of 2008, GigaOM published a profile of Placebase entitled "How Placebase Survived Google Maps," in which they credited Waldman with competing with Google by "offering customizations and tons of features that integrated private and public data sets in many diverse ways" and by offering the ability to layer third-party data sets using the company's "easy-to-use" API, PushPin. A quick glance through the PushPin docs indicates that GigaOM was correct in its "easy-to-use" assessment.

But with Google as its mapping partner, why would Apple want to acquire another set of maps and mapping technologies? We see two possibiities.

First, Apple may be hedging it bets on Google, a company that has been a long-standing partner, but in a relationship that has traversed a rough road of late.

For example, Apple and Google CEO Eric Schmidt "mutually decided" that it was time for Schmidt to leave Apple's board of directors in early August - a departure that came, coincidentally or not, less than a month after the reported Placebase acquisition. The reasoning given at the time was that the Google Android and Chrome OS projects were moving all too close to Apple's core business.

Oh yes, and there was that small matter of the US Federal Trade Commission looking into possible competitive conflicts of interest regarding Schmidt's position on the Apple board.

More recently, Google and Apple clashed over Cupertino's decision to not accept Google Voice and Google Lattitude into the iTunes App Store. Complicating this case was a US Federal Communications Commission investigation which resulted in Google telling the FCC that Apple had rejected its apps, but Apple claiming that Cupertino was still studying the matter.

Perhaps Steve Jobs and his (remaining) board members want to have an alternative mapping strategy in place if Google decides to play hardball and backs out of the relationship. Or perhaps the Apple braintrust sees the writing on the wall, and the moving finger is writing "Android" and "Chrome OS."

The second possible scenario has less to do with Google per se, and more to do with Apple's increasing interest in location-based technologies. For example, Apple has recently applied for a cluster of patents on location-aware technologies, including site-specific ads.

And that otherwise-silly iPhone compass must have some future planned for it other than simply telling you which way is north. Augmented reality, anyone?

To achieve its location-awareness dreams, Apple needs some bright mapping minds on its team - or to be more specific, its "Geo Team," as Waldman's LinkedIn profile calls it.

Or maybe Apple plans both - that is, to prepare for a non-Googlian future in which the minds, maps, and APIs of Placebase not only replace those provided by Google, but which also bring a wealth of new location-aware technologies to Cupertino's mobile devices.

If that's the case, we're going to miss Google Street View. ®

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