Embark, maker of a public transit app of the same name, has been acquired by Apple for an undisclosed sum, according to Jessica Lessin, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who's running an as-yet-unnamed tech news publication.
Neither Apple nor Embark CEO David Hodge responded to requests to confirm the reported deal. Lessin wrote that an unnamed Apple spokeswoman confirmed the deal and stated: "Apple buys smaller technology companies from time to time, and we generally do not discuss our purpose or plans."
From 2007 until last year, Apple and Google worked together on the Apple-owned Maps app that comes with Apple's iOS mobile operating system. But relying on Google as a supplier of backend map data became untenable as the two companies began competing more directly in the mobile market.
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Google lost its place in Apple's Maps app last year with the debut of iOS 6, but Apple's decision to decouple itself from Google didn't go well. Despite the acquisitions of three map technology companies in the years leading up to the split -- Placebase in 2009, Poly9 in 2010 and C3 Technologies in 2011 -- the iOS 6 version of Maps met with widespread criticism and ridicule.
Executive departures and an apology from CEO Tim Cook followed, along with a series of maps-oriented job postings, as Apple tried to hire its way out of the hole it had dug.
So far this year, Apple has made six acquisitions, four of which are related to maps: WiFiSlam in March, Locationary and HopStop.com in July and Embark in August.
Maps matter to Apple and just about everyone else in the mobile market because they're the foundation upon which online companies build local advertising, commerce and payments services. Particularly on touch-oriented devices, maps are an interface element, not unlike the Finder in Apple's Mac OS X, and the companies that control them can become gatekeepers to the mobile world.
Apple's forthcoming iOS 7 offers an opportunity for redemption. The updated mobile operating system will look significantly different, enough that the aesthetic and functional changes to the Apple Maps app interface may encourage some who rejected the iOS 6 version of Maps in favor of the Google Maps app to give Apple a second chance. To help that happen, Apple must ensure that its Maps app is accurate. It cannot afford more lengthy forum threads about map errors.
Winning back disaffected customers won't be easy however. Google has been improving its Maps app at a rapid pace since going solo last December. In July, the company addressed a long standing competitive gap when it released Google Maps for iOS 2.0, the first version of its app optimized for Apple's iPad. And earlier this week, Google began integrating data from community traffic reporting app Waze, acquired in June, into Google Maps.