The fate of an acquired startup is never certain, and that’s especially true at secretive Apple(s AAPL). This question hangs over its latest acquisition, a small Silicon Valley indoor location company called WifiSlam. Apple may have simply wanted its Stanford-educated founders, or — more likely — it wants to integrate WifiSlam’s technology into its mobile products and develop the technology further.
Here’s what WifiSlam says its service does:
Allow your smartphone to pinpoint its location (and the location of your friends) in real-time to 2.5m accuracy using only ambient WiFi signals that are already present in buildings. We are building the next generation of location-based mobile apps that, for the first time, engage with users at the scale that personal interaction actually takes place. Applications range from step-by-step indoor navigation, to product-level retail customer engagement, to proximity-based social networking.
WifiSlam uses a combination of Wi-Fi hotspots, as well as a mobile device’s compass, GPS and gyroscope to navigate indoors. (It’s not entirely unique — other companies, like Wifarer — are working on similar indoor positioning technology.) And to work, it needs buildings with prevalent Wi-Fi signals, which tend to be large public areas like malls, airports, train stations, museums and sports arenas.
While it’s not very likely to pop up in the next version of iOS, here are a couple of ideas to give an example of how Apple some day could integrate WifiSlam’s capabilities to augment or improve Apple services as they stand today.
Apple still has its work cut out for it improving the GPS location data for its Maps app. But what if, like Google(s GOOG) has already begun to do, Apple could map the inside of buildings and not just the outside? It could add extra layers to its maps so that it wouldn’t matter if you were indoors or outdoors; it could direct you right to your location no matter where you needed to go — and with far more specificity. Instead of providing you driving directions to the airport, for example, what if Apple Maps could switch to walking directions and show you how to navigate to your gate, a place to eat, grab coffee or pick up a book. And if it could show you those things, it seems feasible that you could also have the map display the location of Wi-Fi hotspots or charging stations at that airport.
Besides Maps, this one seems the most obvious to integrate with indoor navigation. Passbook is for holding your movie passes, travel and event tickets, gift cards, coupons and rewards cards; an awful lot of things you do indoors. If you have, say, a Fandango ticket in your Passbook, the app can currently tell you when you’re close to the movie theater. Same with a Starbucks gift card — it can let you know you’re in range of a place to pick up a tall latte. But that’s where there’s somewhat of a disconnect right now: Passbook’s notification doesn’t tell you exactly where that theater or Starbucks is or how to get to it.
Obviously if you’ve got an iPhone you can open up the Starbucks app to find the closest store, or Yelp or a maps app to find the theater. But what if Passbook could direct you to the Starbucks inside the airport? Or to the theater at the other end of the mall? Or if you were on a Wi-Fi-enabled train and had an Amtrak ticket in Passbook, the location of the quiet car or where your seat is located?
With WifiSlam’s technology, Passbook could become a better or more accurate way for retailers to engage customers too: imagine if you had a Walgreens or Target card in your Passbook that could show you a deal on laundry detergent or toothpaste once you’ve walked into the store and direct you right to the aisle carrying that promotion.
Find My Friends
WifiSlam says it can do “proximity-based social networking.” In the case of what Apple is already doing, a new and improved Find My Friends with WifiSlam technology could notify you if a friend or co-worker or child is inside a building and possibly where to find them.
Reminders was introduced with iOS 5 in late 2011. It lets you set alerts based on locations, so when you when you’re arriving or leaving a place it can remind you of whatever you asked it to — call your spouse, pick up a prescription — though I haven’t had great luck with this feature working consistently myself. With Wi-Fi positioning of indoor locations, Apple could make this location-based service more accurate and useful if it could pinpoint you inside of buildings.
Apple has integrated its App Store app with other services: You can already use the app to order anything from an iPhone or MacBook to a Nike Fuel Band; you can search its contents via Siri; you use the Apple Store app while in an Apple Store to check out and pay for some items without interacting with a cashier. A natural extension of this, with indoor positioning technology, would be to direct you to an Apple Store in a mall. And in stores, even guide you right to the item you’re looking for or to the Genius Bar for your appointment.
These are just a couple of thoughts as to how indoor location could make Apple’s services more helpful or interesting. But there are probably many more possibilities. What else would you like to see?