Exclusive: Apple Buys (Another) Map App, Embark

by Jessica E. Lessin

Apple Inc. keeps snapping up mapping companies.

The latest: Embark Inc., a small Silicon Valley upstart that builds free transit apps to help smartphone users navigate public transportation.

We don’t know how much Apple paid for the several-person team it acquired very recently. But we heard from people knowledgeable about the deal that the company plans to directly integrate Embark’s technology into Apple Maps.

Embark, founded in 2011, builds apps for mobile devices powered by Android and Apple’s iOS with information about transit systems in about half a dozen U.S. cities such as New York, San Francisco and Chicago. Its iOS apps are still available for download, but its Android apps aren’t, according to our checks.

An Apple spokeswoman confirmed the deal and said “Apple buys smaller technology companies from time to time, and we generally do not discuss our purpose or plans.” The company didn’t have any comment on the availability of the Android apps.

You’ll remember that Apple openly punted on offering public transit features, like predicting when a train will arrive, when it launched Apple Maps last fall.

Doing so would have required ingesting and sorting data from many public transit agencies. And the new Apple Maps app was buggy enough already. To the delight of companies like Embark, Apple instead directs users to other apps for those features.

Embark’s investors include Silicon Valley seed funds Y Combinator, SV Angel and BMW Group, which has a venture arm that invests in mobile services.

Embark claimed to have more than half a million users of its apps when BMW invested last November. But it faces a host of competitors, including apps like iTransitBuddy and Rover, many of which Apple Maps promotes to users too.

The company had struggled to nail down a business plan, a factor that likely contributed to its desire to sell, one of the people familiar with the deal said.

It bears mentioning that Google Maps already integrates hoards of public transit data to help users plan their trips; it is unclear whether Apple is just trying to get up to par or wants to try something new.

What is clear is that “mapageddon,” or the fight between Apple and Google to build the best maps for mobile, marches on. Here’s a quick recap of some old and recent mapping companies each has purchased.

Google:

3D mapping and data: Keyhole (2004)

Digital mapping: Where 2 Technologies (2004)

European maps: Endoxon (2006)

Aerial photography: ImageAmerica (2007)

Traffic: Waze (2013)

Apple:

Mapping data: Placebase (2009)

3D mapping: Poly9, C3 Technologies  (2010, 2011)

Indoor location: WifiSlam (2013)

Transit data: Locationary, HopStop, Embark (2013)

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