Apple Quietly Assembles Geospatial Brain Trust

Apple has quietly acquired the development teams of two small geospatial software companies, in an apparent bid to create a next-generation mobile GIS platform. We think augmented reality will be the big deal to come from all this.

Today Montreal newspaper Le Soleil is reporting that Apple has acquired Quebec software firm Poly9, a web mapping firm with a client list that included Apple, MSNBC, and NORAD. The acquisition was not announced by either firm. Le Soleil is reporting that most former Poly9 employees were recently relocated to Apple headquarters in California, and that they all signed confidentiality agreements regarding the acquisition.

Poly9’s best known product was Poly9 Globe, a Flash-based Google Earth competitor which is no longer online. The company was a featured presenter at least twice at Where 2.0, the Silicon Valley conference for web-based geospatial products.

Last July Apple also quietly acquired PlaceBase, which made a software API called PushPin for geospatial applications. For months the only news was a Twitter feed from founder Fred Lalonde: “Apple bought PlaceBase – all hush hush. PushPin site taken offline. Hyperlocal iPhone?” Later Geo-watchers realized the PushPin was still available to existing clients, even without a web home page.

PlaceBase was similar to Google Maps in that it was a mapping service, but with differences. The company would offer customizations for clients, and offered a rich feature set for combining private and public data, the PushPin API. A website still using the API is

In both acquisitions, it seems Apple was more interested in acquiring talent than products. A Quebec-based writer familiar with Poly9, Luc Vaillancourt of, called the devlopers “agile Web ninjas.” Poly9 had been using PushPin technology, so the two development teams knew each others’ work before the acquisitions.

What Do We Think?
Why has Apple acquired these two geospatial development teams? The obvious reason is Apple wants to decrease its dependence on Google Maps and Google Earth on iPhone/iPad. The on iPhone/iPad is based on Google Maps, but when Google tried to submit a separate mapping application, Google Latitude, Apple rejected it as too similar. Latitude is now only available on iPhone/iPad via the Safari browser.

Terra Imaging's golf course navigation software is an early augmented reality app for Apple iPhone/iPad.

But the big unspoken story here is augmented reality. iPad, in particular, is a killer device for merging geospatial displays with real-time data. The Poly9 guys understand 3D, the PlaceBase team knows data layering. It shouldn’t take them too long to put together an app for hyperlocal data display. Point the camera at a restaurant and see Yelp reviews floating over the front door, or point at Nordstrom’s and get an on-screen coupon for shoes good only for the next 30 minutes.