Apple is widely thought of as a major innovator in the tech industry. While it’s true that Cupertino does employ some of the best designers and engineers in the world, Apple simply wouldn’t be where it is without a large number of strategic acquisitions. Most notably, iOS and OS X wouldn’t even exist without the purchase of NeXT.
Of course, that acquisition also brought Steve Jobs back to Apple, but that serves to highlight the strength of a smart acquisition. Not only will purchasing a company net you products and patents, but you’re gaining an influx of amazing employees as well.
In this article, I’d like to walk through a number of important acquisitions Apple has made in the last decade. From the A6 SoC through multitouch displays to Siri, Apple has relied heavily on acquired technology to build the iPhone, iPad, and iOS. It’s important to remember that purchases like these help make Apple what it is, and even the best engineers in the world need some fresh ideas from time to time.
FingerWorks, founded by doctoral students at the University of Delaware, focused on developing numerous devices like the TouchStream multitouch keyboard. Its quirky products never took off on a large scale, but the core technology and patents were successful enough to garner the attention of Apple. In 2005, Apple purchased the company, and effectively shut down the existing business. Two years later, the iPhone came out, and heavily featured multitouch technology.
Even if Apple was working on multitouch devices before the acquisition, it’s clear that the expertise and patent portfolio that came along with FingerWorks helped make multitouch displays become an industry standard.
App Store Genius
Chomp was founded in 2009, and served as a search engine for iOS and Android apps. The search tool was available on the web and as an app, and it enabled users to discover new and relevant apps more easily than Apple or Google’s built-in search engines. It received millions of dollars of venture capital funding, and even partnered with Verizon to build a backend for the telecom’s app store. Despite its success as an independent company, Apple was able to snatch up Chomp in early 2012 for a reported $50 million (£32 million). The Android and iOS apps disappeared, and the Chomp technology appears to be powering app searches and the App Store Genius functionality currently featured on the App Store.
In 2010, Apple unveiled the first iPad. Inside of it was a powerful custom SoC designed by Apple called the A4. Later came the A5, A5X, A6, A6X, and the rumoured upcoming A7 chip. However, none of these outstanding SoCs would even be possible if Apple didn’t make a handful of strategic acquisitions over the last few years. In 2008, Apple picked up P.A. Semi for $280 million (£180 million), 2010 saw the acquisition of Intrinsity for $121 million (£77 million), and Passif Semiconductor was purchased earlier this year for an unknown figure. With this ever increasing pool of talent and patents, Apple continues to make a name for itself in the world of SoC design.
Apple’s maps have been a bit of a sore spot for the last year. Apple’s contract with Google ran out, and Apple decided to build its own solution. Of course, a few purchases helped get the ball rolling. Placebase was purchased back in July of 2009, Poly9 was added to Apple’s portfolio in July of 2010, and 3D mapping company C3 Technologies was acquired in August of 2011. This amalgam of purchases, alongside partnerships with companies like TomTom, led to the launch of Apple’s own mapping service in 2012. It was received very poorly, but Apple hasn’t stopped trying. WiFiSlam was purchased in March of this year, Locationary and HopStop.com were picked up in July, and Embark was snatched up by Cupertino just a couple of weeks ago. With this much mapping prowess under its roof, Apple is clearly taking this problem very seriously.
Anobit Technologies was founded in Israel in 2006. It developed dozens of patents for flash controllers, and quickly gained substantial notoriety and venture funding. Since Apple uses so many NAND chips in iPads, iPhones, iPods, and Macs, it was no surprise when Apple acquired the Israeli company and its patent portfolio in December 2011 for a whopping $390 million (£250 million). Any competitive edge Apple can find for creating cheaper and better flash-based devices holds the potential to drastically change its production chain. Flash storage is constantly improving, and it’s in Apple’s best interest to stay on the cutting edge of speed and reliability improvements.
Apple introduced built-in HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography on the iPhone 4 with the release of iOS 4.1. By taking multiple photos at different exposures, and then merging the visual data together, photographers can end up with better looking pictures with more detail in dark and bright areas. To help improve the core technology, Apple purchased a UK-based company called IMSense for an undisclosed amount of money in September 2010. As the hardware and software of the iPhone have improved, so have the overall quality of HDR images. Now, amazing HDR techniques are available to even novice photographers using iPhones.
Faces might just be the most important part of personal photos. Finding and identifying faces is vital for good photography software, and Apple does a decent job on most fronts. iPhoto automatically finds faces, and attempts to guess who is in each photo based on previous input. On iOS, the camera app automatically detects faces, and enables developers to easily implement live photo manipulation. Part of this clever face detection is thanks to the 2010 acquisition of a Swedish company called Polar Rose. With that core technology, any developer on iOS can take advantage of automatic face detection thanks to the built-in Core Image API.
After Google began to make serious moves against Apple in the smartphone market, Cupertino decided to get into the advertising game – seemingly in retaliation towards its former partner. After a bit of a bidding war, Google was able to secure the purchase of AdMob in 2009. Not to be outdone, Apple purchased Quattro Wireless in 2010 to compete directly against Mountain View. iAds was born out of this purchase, although it never really took off on a large scale. Even so, this acquisition remains a notable point in the fascinating breakdown of the working relationship between Google and Apple.
Lala.com launched in 2006, and offered a myriad of social music features. Users could stream music, share songs with friends, and even dynamically create online playlists. It became increasingly popular, and even made its way into Google results after a while. Apple, the dominant digital music distributor, saw the potential of Lala’s robust feature set, and purchased the company in December 2009. Afterwards, features like web previews, iTunes in the Cloud, and the brand new iTunes Radio were announced to mostly positive receptions. Without a doubt, the success and purchase of Lala went a long way in modernising both the iTunes store interface and backend.
Siri wasn’t a built-in iOS feature from its inception. Originally, Siri was a standalone third-party application on iOS, and the development team intended to bring it to other platforms. Instead, Apple took note of the impressive natural language service, and acquired the technology outright in April of 2010. The next year, the iPhone 4S debuted with Siri integration, and Apple ran with it. Siri was featured heavily in Apple’s advertising campaign, and it actually became something of a cultural phenomenon. Today, automakers are building in support for Siri in their vehicles, and Google is now competing head-to-head with Apple in the field of natural language processing. This clever app started out small, and grew to be so much more. Through Apple’s purchase, it grew to help define iOS as a platform.
AuthenTec, a security company tasked with providing custom hardware and software to the world’s leading electronics companies, was acquired by Apple back in July 2012. While nothing notable has come out of this acquisition just yet, the rumour mill is obsessed with the possibility of Apple introducing an AuthenTec-based fingerprint scanner on the iPhone 5S. If this rumour turns out to be true, that would make the turnaround only 14 months from the acquisition – not too shabby. Hopefully, at the next-generation iPhone launch tomorrow, Apple will show us once again that its huge war chest and strategic acquisitions are vital in making large steps forward in functionality and usability. AuthenTec’s goods might just make the iPhone the most secure smartphone on the market.