Apple’s WifiSLAM acquisition brings the company indoors, but can it keep up with Google?

Screen Shot 2013 01 28 at 5.39.16 PM 645x250 520x245 Apples WifiSLAM acquisition brings the company indoors, but can it keep up with Google?

Since announcing it would boot Google Maps from iPhones last year at WWDC, Apple has struggled to keep its maps product competitive with that of Google’s. Apple’s results have been a mixed bag, with a handful of publications arguing its superiority over Google Maps, and a majority of others complaining loudly enough to necessitate an apology from CEO Tim Cook.

Now, as Apple works to improve and expand its mapping service, The Wall Street Journal is reporting a $20 million acquisition of indoor GPS startup WiFiSLAM — undoubtedly a move to challenge Google’s indoor mapping initiative.

Indoor Mapping At The Moment

While the user experience will ideally be the same for consumers, there are many different ways to bring GPS-like functionality indoors. Clearly, traditional GPS technology isn’t an option, but there are various techniques in bringing accuracy to this emerging space.

Google and Apple aren’t alone in this fight…

Indoor Google Maps reportedly utilizes a combination of data sets, including nearby WiFi hotspots, cell tower data and manually uploaded floor plans. While asking merchants to upload their own floor plans appears to be a cumbersome and time-consuming process, Google appears to have done well so far, with over 10,000 floor plans charted across the US, Canada, UK, Spain, Germany, Singapore and more.

It’s noteworthy that Google’s street view mapping process was also cumbersome and time-consuming, but it certainly paid off.

A detailed look at WifiSLAM’s own techniques aren’t available publicly, but the company claims it can achieve “2.5m accuracy using only ambient WiFi signals that are already present in buildings.”

Google and Apple aren’t alone in this fight, either; Nokia, Samsung, Sony Mobile and nineteen other companies formed an “In-Location Alliance” last year to boost indoor positioning technologies. The alliance appears to be evangelizing a combination of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi network data for generating accurate indoor maps.

There’s territory left to conquer, but Apple has a long way to go…

Microsoft has also developed indoor solutions within its Bing Maps product, and announced 3,000+ indoor venue maps back in October of last year.

Various other emerging startups also exist in this space, including ByteLight, which raised $1.25 million last year to fund its LED-powered location system. The Wi-Fi-focused Aisle41/WiLocate, radio-based Qubulus and CMS-focused Meridian serve to further complicate this industry as potential competitors and acquisition targets.

Apple Has A Ways To Go

There’s plenty of territory left to conquer, but Apple has a long way to go if it wants to dominate indoor mapping. Google has major partnerships with the likes of IKEA, The Home Depot and Mall of America; Meridian has deals with NY’s MTA and The American Museum of Natural History; and Microsoft claims relationships with nine of the largest US malls.

WifiSLAM, on the other hand, has kept quiet in terms of its current and potential reach — its entire site has been taken down following the acquisition.

Apple’s struggle in the mapping space isn’t encouraging, but indoor mapping is still very much a developing technology. Jumping into the indoor game now could prevent Apple from falling too far behind to catch up.

Image Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images



Siri, Y U No Understand Me? [INFOGRAPHIC]

Siri is a loyal mistress, following you wherever you go — but is she a good listener?

Since the iPhone 4S began coming standard with Siri last October, the voice activated personal assistant has become a cultural phenomenon. Samuel L. Jackson and Zooey Deschanel star in Siri-themed ads for the phone. A creepy iPhone case forces you to interact with Siri. A different project enables Siri to destroy your phone if it’s lost or stolen, and a viral video shows what happens when Siri goes psycho.

But everyone’s not impressed. In March, a man filed suit against Apple, alleging that Siri “does not perform as advertised.” Anecdotally, many others have complained that Siri doesn’t respond to voice commands and questions as hyped.

Given the controversy, Internet education portal OnlineDegrees.com rounded up a number of studies and statistics from sources including The Wall Street Journal, ABC News and others over the past several months to produce the infographic below. Among the findings: 87% of iPhone 4S owners use Siri at least once per month, with just over half describing themselves as “satisfied” with her performance. Another 9% say they’re not satisfied, while 36% say they’re somewhere between happy and unhappy.

Only two-thirds of users, however, employ Siri for anything beyond searching the web, making a phone call or sending a text. At least 30% of users say they would never use Siri to schedule a metting, play music or even send an email, while just a quarter use Siri to send emails on a daily basis.

Check out the infographic below for more on how iPhone owners do — and don’t — use Siri. Then let us know in the comments — do you think Siri really works?




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How Many Daily Downloads Does It Take To Reach The Top Of The App Store? [Updated]

app_store_rankings

It’s hard to underestimate how important ranking in Apple’s top 25 in the iTunes store is for mobile app developers. After all, the top 25 is probably the single most important app discovery mechanism for most iOS users. But how many downloads does it take to rank in the top 25? Mobile app store analytics firm Distimo today published some interesting data that answers just this question. Turns out, in the U.S. store, the answer currently is about 38,400 daily downloads for free iPhone apps and 3,530 for paid iPhone apps. To rank in the top 25 per category, of course, takes significantly fewer downloads, with games unsurprisingly being the most competitive category. It takes 25,300 daily downloads to rank in the gaming top 25 for free apps and 2,280 downloads for paid apps.

For free apps, other competitive categories include ‘entertainment’ (6,700 daily downloads), ‘social networking’ (5,800), ‘lifestyle’ (3,900) and ‘music’ (3,900). Interestingly, in the paid app charts photography apps rank just behind games and entertainment apps. Still, it currently only takes about 270 daily downloads to rank in the photography top 25 for paid apps.

These numbers, of course, are always changing and this just represent a snapshot of what Distimo found when it compiled this data last month.

Update: We just talked to one source with a lot of experience in building mobile apps and who also currently runs a top App Store app. According to this source, Distimo’s numbers are too low and may just represent data from a relatively small number of apps. Keep that in mind as you read Distimo’s data.

Given the popularity of games on iOS, Distimo also took a closer look at the various gaming subcategories. Here, arcade and action games lead the pack:

This is the first time Distimo is releasing a detailed set of these numbers. It’s worth noting, though, that at the end of 2011, the company reported that it still took about 45,000 daily downloads to rank in the top 25 of most popular free apps. Since then, though, Apple has been working hard to shut down various scams and bots that automatically downloaded apps and allowed developers to rank in Apple’s charts without having a real user base (then, once you are in the top 25, of course, real users will automatically find you, of course). Judging from Distimo’s latest data, these efforts are starting to pay off and will hopefully make life a little bit easier for legit developers.


Apple patent could lead to face-based user switching in iOS and beyond

Apple continues to consider ways to enable easy user switching and control for iOS devices using facial recognition, which may eventually lead to facial unlock features in the iPhone or iPad. A recently published patent application details an automatic user-switching system which can lock, unlock, and reconfigure a device for unique users based on face detection using a front-facing camera.

Beyond the use of a facial recognition to enable the system, however, we think the concept of multi-user iOS devices has been a long time coming. Furthermore, the same system could be easily adapted to desktop systems, making it easier to share an iMac or even a MacBook among family members or coworkers.

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All That Cash: On Apple, Twitter And The New Bit Factories

Screen shot 2012-03-25 at 8.12.38 PM

Editor’s Note: This guest post was written by Amit Runchal, who blogs at Interactioned.

The speculation of what Apple is going to do with all their cash has long been a favorite topic in the tech and financial press. But the thinking along those lines is often akin to the cognitive dissonance one experiences when seeing a billionaire driving a Civic. What’s the point of having all that money if you’re not going to spend it?

That thinking is what we saw when Apple recently announced their cash plans. Two common reactions went something like this:

Saddened by Apple’s plan for a huge dividend. Apparently, they have nothing truly capital-intensive in the product pipeline.

— Max Levchin (@mlevchin) March 19, 2012

@mlevchin But they haven’t been investing it! They’ve been hoarding it. They clearly have no idea what to do with it.

— Henry Blodget (@hblodget) March 19, 2012

The first argument is easy enough to pick apart, as others have explained this past week. In short, even after issuing dividends and repurchasing shares, Apple’s cash reserves will likely grow this year. They added more than $35 billion in cash and equivalents last year alone. There’s nothing “capital-intensive” that they can’t do, short of opening an Apple Store on the moon. That Apple television set that’s rumored to be in the pipeline? That’s nothing. Foxconn’s factories, for example, have a gross book value of $14 billion as of the end of 2010. Apple makes that much in a few months, and only needs a fraction of that to actually get the production lines going on a television.

The idea floating around before Apple’s Monday announcement that they would be buying a company like Foxconn or building factories of their own seems to make sense, since Apple is one of the more vertically integrated consumer electronics companies in the world. And they are, after all, notorious for both control and quality. But they’ve managed to lead the industry on the latter without owning a significant portion of their supply chain. And as for the former: they have the factory owners right where they want them — by the short and curlies. Hence the razor-thin margins Apple deigns to give them. Here’s New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg in This American Life’s recent retraction episode:

Apple’s the gold standard. As a result, Apple has this enormous negotiating power, and they use it, I am told by our sources, very aggressively to come in and basically say, “Show us your entire cost structure, every single part of what you pay and what you… and piece of your, your, your internal economics, and we are going to give you a razor-thin profit margin that you’re allowed to keep.

In other words: Why buy the cow?

Apple also, more importantly, finances the factories by loaning them cash and buying significant amounts of components in advance. This “Bank of Apple” strategy further establishes control over the factories, locks out competition and seems to be why competitors can’t seem to match Apple’s cost structure for products like the iPad. And let’s not forget that if Apple did own the factories, they’d also have to deal with the additional scrutiny of being responsible for factory employees, which no Western company in their right mind wants to do right now.

This brings us those who think Apple has run out of ideas on what to do with their cash. The fevered result of this are the acquisition talks — hence the recently oft-mentioned and largely nonsensical suggestion that Apple should buy a company like Twitter. But Apple’s approach to acquisitions has always been extremely conservative, especially compared to their brethren. Since 2010 Apple’s bought a grand total of nine companies. In that same period Google has bought 52.

People like Henry Blodget may think that Apple’s been hoarding money Scrooge McDuck-style because Apple doesn’t know what to do with it. But if you take a look at Google’s list of acquisitions, you can make the argument that Google doesn’t know what it’s doing either.

Apple’s acquisitions — with admitted 20/20 hindsight — paint a clear picture of what each of those acquisitions were for. LaLa: iCloud. Anobit: Flash memory components. Siri: duh. In short: tactical acquisitions.

I think there’s a strong argument to be made that you can’t say the same for Google. Perhaps the grand master Google plan hasn’t become apparent to me yet. But given the inability of Google to make real money off anything besides advertising and their continued struggles in social seem to show a company that’s trying to buy a strategy for the future instead of the tools to make their strategic vision happen.

That last point, I think, engenders a lot of the thought behind the conversations we see about Apple and their cash. Five years ago, a frequently discussed acquisition target was YouTube. Everybody wants to watch videos on their iPod! Apple makes iPods! Ergo YouTube. Today, it’s Twitter. Social is big, so Apple should buy Twitter. Everyone’s tweeting from their phones! Apple makes phones!

Ergo, foolishness.

Apple’s strategic vision for their future has always been clear: they want to sell highly profitable consumer electronic devices. Lots of them.

That’s it.

So how does buying Twitter — or any “social” company — help them sell more devices right now? The notion that Twitter as an acquisition target has to be “kept from the hands Google, Facebook and Microsoft” doesn’t scan. Never mind that Twitter has given no indication of being up for sale — even if they were, how does a Google acquisition of Twitter slow down iPhone sales? In this world, does Google block Twitter and third-party apps from Apple products and a significant number of Twitter users? Does that lead to massive amounts of users fleeing iPhones for Android devices?

The answer to all these questions is clear. Twitter’s success at this point is largely dependent on remaining as platform-agnostic as possible, acquired or not. A company still trying to find a serious revenue stream that is highly dependent on mobile can’t afford to cut themselves off from a huge portion of the mobile market. See also: any social network trying to monetize mobile, including Facebook. Apple’s position in mobile means they doesn’t need to spend a penny to give a strongly-worded “suggestion” on how high these companies should be jumping.

That’s why acquisition targets like Twitter don’t make sense for Apple right now. Again: why buy the cow? Apple doesn’t need Twitter or any company like it. Twitter needs Apple. Twitter needs the massive iOS user base and now the system-level integration. Apple is making bit factories like Twitter as dependent on Apple as actual factories like Foxconn are.

So what’s that cash for? Besides the absolute freedom and control that $100 billion gives Apple — a company that probably still remembers the time they had to approach Microsoft, hat in hand — it’s important to remember that Apple isn’t close to achieving the success they want. Tim Cook said it himself:

In our most recently recorded quarter we sold 37 million iPhones. That’s a very large number but it represented less than 9 percent of handsets sold during the quarter.

Apple still has a long way to go with all their products in markets that have been much less hospitable to the company. China, where iPhones are still not available on the biggest carriers, is a perfect example. When you consider the new territories Apple still wants to conquer — and especially in territories where Apple’s current carrier-subsidized selling approach for phones isn’t the norm — Apple’s cash stockpile doesn’t reflect a company that doesn’t know what to do with their money.

It reflects a company that packed an enormous steamer trunk for a long and treacherous journey.

A trunk full of weapons.