Apple Purchase of Placebase Confirmed: Goodbye Google Maps?

pushpinGoogle and Apple’s very public, very messy ongoing lover’s spat is obviously not doing either company many favors in the media. Apple looks to be taking steps to ensure that should it need to, it can go without the do-everything leading Internet search provider.

To that end, it’s finally been confirmed this week by ComputerWorld that Apple did indeed acquire Google Maps competitor Placebase in July of this year. Former Placebase CEO Jaron Waldman is now part of the “Geo Team” at Apple, which suggests that the company was acquired so that Cupertino could work on its own, in-house Google Maps alternative.

Our own sister site GigaOM ran a profile of Placebase back in May 2008. It detailed the way in which Placebase’s PushPin product was able to stay afloat and compete with Google Maps, which offered its services completely free of charge. Placebase offered white label solutions for a price.

PushPin, and the follow-up, PolicyMap, which expanded PushPin’s features, competed by offering users the ability to layer on commercial and public data sets, including things like home sales, crime, demographics, employment, etc. Developers could also add their own data sets using a simple API. All of which made it infinitely more useful for business applications, and open to some incredibly creative uses, too.

Acquiring the one company that showed signs of being able to do what Google has done, only better and with more possibilities for third-party developer expansion, does not just seem like something done because of idle fancy. Apple’s motivation was probably twofold: First, it has an alternative in case things continue to go sour with the relationship between the two Silicon Valley heavyweights. Second, if the FCC forces a wedge between the two because it finds their relationship noncompetitive, Apple still has a back-up in place to prevent a major feature loss for iPhone users.

Of course, the loss of Google Maps on the iPhone would have far-reaching complications, especially considering the number of apps that now sport direct tie-ins with Maps functionality. To grant developers access to the Maps app in iPhone OS 3.0, and then swap it out for an Apple-branded version of PushPin would require a massive overhaul from a development standpoint. Will Apple really alienate its developer base with such a risky move?

Then again, with over 2 billion downloads and 85,000 apps in the App Store, Apple truly is in the driver’s seat. It has made absolutely sure that the value proposition of being an iPhone developer is apparent to everyone, and as such, it can probably afford to demand some code revisions if it does make a major change.

We’ll have to wait and see how this plays out, but I’m still fairly confident that Apple will only enact the Placebase alternative if the FCC forces a decisive split between Cupertino and Google. Even if the two are having some disagreements on other fronts, a voluntary end to the relationship just doesn’t make good business sense.

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