According to a report on a Wall Street Journal blog (so it must be true), Apple has acquired an “indoor-GPS company” called WifiSLAM. In this case, I assume “GPS” is being used metaphorically, as the blog post explains the technology uses Wifi signals to discover the location of an iPhone inside a building, within a few feet of where it may be lost under your sofa.
While there is nothing new about using Wifi to augment GPS in determining ones location, earlier approaches that I’ve blogged about focused on network routers, not mobile devices. (And using “anonymous” cell-phone signals provides Google with the data necessary to augment GPS data to show you the exact location where you’re stuck in traffic.)
Perhaps that’s why the initial tech-media coverage of the acquisition speculates that the technology being acquired by Apple is so it can compete with Google’s dominance in maps. (Despite the rather obvious logic that a $20 million acquisition can’t help Apple catch up with the billions Google has invested in maps.)
Competing with Google maps may have something to do with it, but a more obvious reason to me (just a humble user) is the way in which the technology could be used as part of Apple’s rumored development of a smart watch. As a longtime user of GPS devices for bicycling and as an early user of the Pebble watch, a kinda smart watch that links to my iPhone via bluetooth, it seems obvious from my experience that wifi-location technology would be great not only for an iWatch, but for all sorts of smart iStuff. I’d love an iWallet and iKeyChain, for example. Oh, yes, and an iMissingSock.
As the 12 readers of this blog know, I am a seasoned user of the “Find my iPhone” feature (now, of iCloud) to locate my mobile devices. I even tracked down a stolen iPhone once. If Apple could tell me what sofa cushion my iPhone is under without me having to send out a loud Find my iPhone sonar signal to it, that would be pretty nifty. And while I’d much prefer Apple to announce an iFlyingCar, I’ll be eager to see all the things a truly smart watch with in-door location awareness can do.
But, I’ll admit. I will completely understand why most people are going to react negatively to news that Apple can locate where iPhone users are, even when they are indoors. It’s the same way panic-junkies always react whenever they’ve found a new source of panic-crack. But in this case, even I’ve discovered some “geo-aware” apps that are so creepy, I’ve disabled location-related features on all iPhone things that don’t relate specifically to my need to check-in, find things or to let those I choose, find me. Do I really want the Walgreens app to automatically launch when I walk into one of their locations? No — that’s creepy.
So, bottom line: I want to use my phone’s ability to know where I am in ways that show me where I can find what I need, when I need them — inside, or out.
However, it will take a lot for me to give any company, even the ones I like, permission to target me in ways that remind me how creepy it is to be stalked if I don’t understand the benefit.