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Apple gets into Twitter data-mining biz with mystery Topsy buy

Surprise social networking play is a head-scratcher

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In an unanticipated move, Apple has acquired Twitter analytics firm Topsy – though what it plans to do with its latest purchase is anyone's guess.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Cupertino recently snapped up the six-year-old venture-backed startup for more than $200m.

Topsy specializes in analyzing data from the Twitter "Firehose" – the social site's complete raw feed of tweets dating all the way back to 2006 – and then reselling its insights to its clients.

Among the types of information Topsy can extract from Twitter's feeds are how often a particular term is tweeted, who are the most influential Twitter users on a particular subject, how long a topic maintains its peak buzz among Twitter users, and so on. It also claims to be able to identify the geographic origins of tweets with up to 95 per cent accuracy.

Such unfettered data access puts Topsy among a rarified group of Twitter partners. Twitter was once more liberal about Firehose access, but it tightened up its policies in 2012, cutting off several former partners and prompting at least one lawsuit.

At the time, Twitter told a California State Superior Court that companies that wanted deep intelligence from Twitter posts were free to buy it from the few companies that still had Firehose access, including Topsy, Gnip, and DataSift.

That exclusivity alone makes Topsy a potentially lucrative business, and it is reportedly already roped in some $32m in venture-capital backing. But how Topsy's capabilities align with Apple's broader goals remains unclear, as social networking has never really been Cupertino's forte. (Remember Ping? No? We didn't think so.)

Among the theories are that Apple might want to use insights gleaned from tweets to power purchase recommendations in the iTunes Store, to enhance the quality of song recommendations on iTunes Radio, or to improve how Siri interprets user queries.

Those are all shots in the dark so far, however. Neither Twitter nor Topsy would comment on the matter, and while Apple did confirm the purchase, a spokeswoman said only, "Apple buys smaller technology companies from time to time, and we generally do not discuss our purpose or plans." ®

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