Apple was suspected to be the mysterious buyer of Swedish-based 3D mapping technology company C3 technologies earlier this year, and sources speaking to 9to5 Mac have now confirmed that the company was indeed acquired by Apple. Former top executives, including CEO Mattias Astrom, CFO Kjell Cederstrand, and lead Product Manager Ludvig Emgard, are now reportedly working as a team within Apple's iOS division, though they and other former C3 employees are still located in Sweden.
This is in addition to Apple's previous acquisitions of PlaceBase and Poly9, two companies that also offer mapping technologies. Given these three acquisitions related to the same thing, how does Apple plan to integrate C3's 3D mapping technology into its future iOS strategy?
Just over two years ago, Apple acquired mapping technology company PlaceBase. At the time, there was a growing rift between Apple and Google due to Android, resulting in then-CEO Eric Schmidt resigning from Apple's board. It was believed at the time that PlaceBase might serve as some substitute of sorts for Google mapping data used in iOS's Maps application, or at the very least an option waiting in the wings in case Apple decided to go "thermonuclear" on Google.
A year later, Apple then acquired mapping mashup mavens Poly9, a Canadian firm that specialized in connecting mapping data with other data sources to create unique map-based visualizations. The company was also advertising for jobs available to help take location-based services to a new level, and Apple admitted after the "Location-gate" row that it was collecting crowd-sourced data from iPhones for an upcoming traffic analysis feature. Though Apple's own Maps app relied on Google's mapping services, it certainly seemed that Apple was planning to possibly replace Google as the source of that data in iOS.
Despite these rampant rumors, iOS 5 launched this October with Google's mapping services still prominently integrated into iOS. Furthermore, as 9to5 Mac noted, Apple had recently extended its agreement with Google—despite the growing animosity over Android—for search and map data.
Bringing it all together
How, then, does C3 fit into Apple's strategy? We believe that C3's 3D mapping technology will enable Apple to offer something completely different from what Google Maps has offered iOS users to date.
C3 Technologies was spun off from SAAB to further develop and market an automated 3D mapping and analysis technology originally developed for military applications. That technology enabled aircraft to fly over an area to collect images and terrain data, which could then be used to automatically generate a 3D photorealistic map of the area in a matter of hours. The technology is accurate to about a third of a meter, or roughly 12", and it seems likely that C3 has already amassed a large database of mapping data.
C3 gives Apple an accurate database of 3D mapping data for the entire globe (or at least the means to do so). Poly9 gives Apple cutting-edge location data visualization techniques, and PlaceBase gives Apple an easy-to-use API to offer developers. Taken together, the three acquisitions give Apple a mapping technology that can easily exceed what Google brings to the table.
At the most basic level, Apple can replace the traditional top-down, two-dimensional abstract maps with photorealistic three-dimensional views overlaid with relevant, context sensitive location data such as street names, business locations, and more. Combined with the iPhone's GPS, compass, and camera technology, however, we think Apple can top Google's Street View with an augmented reality view for directions and navigation.
To give one illustration of how this might work, imagine combining Find My Friends with an augmented reality 3D map of your current location. Flags or other indicators would let you know where nearby friends are in the immediate vicinity, and you could simply point your iPhone in their general direction to home in on one another to meet up.
How and when Apple will put this technology into iOS users' hands is still a mystery. But it's clear that Apple intends to put the pieces of technology it has acquired so far together to do for mapping what it has done for voice control with Siri.