Apple buys Embark, maker of free transit apps

iPhone 5 (white, three-up, Maps)

The former Wall Street Journal reporter Jessica Lessin has some high-quality sources at Apple and has enjoyed the kind of unprecedented access to company executives that only News Corp. could bring to the table. In between forming a team of star bloggers for her upcoming news venture and tweeting, she finds time to post an exclusive every once in a while. Back in July, for instance, Jessica scooped a story about Apple’s rumored ad-skipping feature for an upcoming television service.

And during her WSJ tenure, she revealed that Apple had snapped up indoor GPS company WiFiSLAM for $20 million, confirmed a chip deal with TSMC and scooped many, many other exclusives. Today she broke on her blog that Apple has acquired another transit app startup, a small Silicon Valley upstart called Embark, for un undisclosed sum…

Embark is behind nearly a dozen transit apps on the App Store and Google’s Play store.

Interestingly enough, Jessica heard from people knowledgeable about the deal that the company plans to “directly integrate Embark’s technology into Apple Maps”.

The company had struggled to nail down a business plan, a factor that likely contributed to its desire to sell, one of the people familiar with the deal said.

Apple has confirmed the deal with its standard boilerplate disclaimer:

Apple buys smaller technology companies from time to time, and we generally do not discuss our purpose or plans.

Embark’s iOS apps were available on the App Store at post time, but not on Google’s Play store anymore.

Embark has transit system data on such U.S. cities as New York, San Francisco and Chicago so this acquisition is clearly meant to improve Maps, which currently lacks built-in transit feature so it can’t tell users, for instance, when their train or bus will arrive.

One of the Embark co-founders, David Hodge, used to work at an Apple Store, according to his LinkedIn profile.

Last November, Embark announced that German car maker BMW Group had invested in the company through its mobile services venture arm. Embark’s other investors include Y Combinator and SV Angel.

This is Apple’s second Maps related acquisition in the past few weeks. Two months ago, Bloomberg discovered that Apple had bought the online navigation startup – again, to improve its troubled Maps offering.

All told, the iPhone maker has snapped up seven mapping startups over the course of nearly five years. In 2009, it bought Placebase for mapping data, followed by Poly 9 and C3 Technologies in 2010 and 2011. These acqui-hires had helped Apple build an in-house team of experts that would write Apple Maps from scratch.

This year’s acquisitions of WiFiSLAM for indoor positioning and Locationary, HopStop and Embark for transit data surely doesn’t complete the picture as Apple will likely buy more mapping startups to fix Maps.

Lessin was also first to blog about Apple’s acquisitions of low-power wireless chip developer Passif Semiconductor.