Apple buys indoor-location startup. How close to pinpoint accuracy can it get?

Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) is stepping up its push to be the only vendor that retailers think about when it comes to in-store mobile technology. Having overwhelmingly won the mobile point-of-sale competition among big chains, Apple has now acquired in-store location company WifiSLAM, the Wall Street Journal reported on Sunday (March 24).

Apple reportedly paid about $20 million for the 2-year-old startup, which will give the iPhone maker its own version of technology that uses triangulation of multiple Wi-Fi signals to figure out exactly where in a store or shopping mall a customer is.

Depending on how good the technology is -- and how carefully it's implemented -- that could open up a whole new set of retail possibilities. For example, if a customer's location could be pinpointed inside a store, combined with a smartphone's ability to determine which direction the customer is facing and a planagram of product locations in the store, it could be possible to beam real-time offers to customers based on what products they're actually looking at -- or what they've been looking at on this or previous shopping trips.

The same technology could locate associates and give them directions to where customers are, along with information on what those customers are looking at and, potentially, who the customers are.

Less ambitious indoor-location efforts might simply spot what department a customer is in, or what store she is walking past. That's already being done, and for Apple to justify buying its own Wi-Fi-location technology group, you'd expect more impressive results.

Still, given the troubles Apple had when it launched its own ambitious mapping service and dumped Google Maps, the goal may be to start simple. If Apple can get indoor location right, everything else might fall into place. But without the basics, it would be another fiasco in front of a group of Apple's most enthusiastic customers: retailers themselves.

For more:

- see this post

- see this WSJ story (subscription required)

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