With Its Acquisition Of Locationary, Apple Zeros In On Maps, Big Data And Competing With Google

After breaking up with Google and forging its own way forward with its mapping service on iOS, Apple is now taking another step on that path: today it emerged that the company has bought Locationary, a Canada-based big data startup that has created a platform to merge and clean up disparate information about companies’ business profiles so that data can be consistent and accurate wherever that profile gets used (think: location+dictionary).

The news was first reported by AllThingsD, which got a confirmation of the acquisition from Apple itself. It reports that acquisition, which has already closed, includes assets and staff at the startup.

Apple is not disclosing the terms of the deal, nor how the acquisition will be used. “Apple buys smaller technology companies from time to time, and we generally do not discuss our purpose or plans,” spokesperson Steve Dowling told ATD. But a closer look at what Locationary does, and the context for Apple’s acquisition, gives some clues.

For starters, there is the direct competition element with other mapping providers, specifically Apple’s old partner Google, which also produces Android, Apple’s biggest platform competitor in mobile. It’s important for Apple to forge ahead and enhance its location business simply because, just as maps are ever-evolving things, so is the mapping and location business.

Google has ramped up its efforts to enhance what it is providing to the world — both through its own Google Maps upgrades but by way of billion-dollar acquisitions of mapping technology companies like Waze. And Nokia and others remain big players also looking for their own stake in the game. Yes, some of that has yet to convert into profit, but for the mobile world, where handsets are getting used as ever-more central, always-present tools for doing everything, mapping and location innovations and functionality remain a land grab. Apple buying Locationary will help it both keep up with the Joneses in that regard.

Perhaps more pointedly, the deal is also significant because it shows that Apple is still working hard to repair some of the damage that it suffered when it first made the switch to Apple Maps — a move that saw a big drop in data accuracy with a few particularly bad results, with the subsequent PR so bad that Tim Cook ended up having to issue an apology.

In fact, it’s the Apple Maps fiasco that first brought Locationary to TechCrunch’s attention — founder and CEO Grant Ritchie stuck his head above the parapet and gave low-key Locationary some attention with an opinion piece on five things Apple needed to address in fixing Maps. The main takeaway of that piece? Apple needs to focus on and fix data aggregation. Was this what brought the company to Apple’s attention or was this Ritchie dropping a very subtle clue to the world to watch out for Locationary? In any case, it seems pretty clear that this is one area where we might expect some of Locationary’s IP to come through.

But because this is Apple we are talking about, it also is a sign of how it is also pressing on and turning what started as a fiasco into an opportunity to do more. Locationary, and its Saturn data platform, can be used to collate and cross-reference data for business profiles. Yes, perhaps the most obvious place where this could benefit Apple is in providing its own, proprietary data for its own Maps app.

However, if you look closely at what Locationary actually does, the potential is much bigger.

Locationary notes that it already works with data providers, enterprises and mobile app developers to help parse and clean up their business data. This points to how Apple can use Locationary’s technology to also improve and enhance its own SDKs for apps as well as its wider push into services focused on enterprises.

Enterprises are already big business for Apple — which has found a very welcoming home for iPads in the workplace to complement the BYOD trend that saw a rush of iPhones supplant BlackBerrys as the smartphone of choice among business users. Now, it makes sense to introduce more services that integrate with those devices to create more revenue streams and of course tie those enterprises even more tightly into the Apple ecosystem — much as Apple has done with apps and the iPhone for consumers.

The big data element, including Locationary’s existing position within that, is not to be underestimated: so far, the company says that it’s plowed through 5.61 billion data fields, managing 175 million profiles across 253 feeds and repositories. In other words, it has a track record here. And that’s on a relatively lean basis: according to our Crunchbase records, Locationary has only raised around $2.5 million since 2009. With Apple’s muscle behind it, including Apple’s existing network of apps and users, visits to Saturn will be (excuse the pun) turbo-charged.

Below a diagram from Locationary showing how Saturn works:

locationary diagram