Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) has acquired yet another mapping and navigation company, its third in the past two months. Jessica Lessin, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, said the iPhone maker has purchased Embark Inc., a 2-year-old Silicon Valley startup known for its batch of transit applications that help Android and iOS users navigate public transportation routes.

An Apple spokeswoman confirmed the Embark deal, adding, "Apple buys smaller technology companies from time to time, and we generally do not discuss our purpose or plans." The spokeswoman didn't disclose any details about the deal, including how much Apple paid for the several-person team, and didn't have any information regarding the future availability of Embark's Android apps. Embark currently has 10 iOS apps in the Apple App Store.

Besides Embark, Apple has been busy snatching up navigation and map applications in recent months. On July 19, Apple acquired two mapping companies -- Toronto-based Locationary, focused on crowdsourcing location data for local businesses, and New York City-based HopStop, which aggregates massive amounts of data from several hundred transit agencies to help mobile users get from Point A to Point B via subway, bus, train, taxi, walking or biking. In March, Apple spent $20 million on another Silicon Valley startup, WiFiSLAM, which allows users to detect and navigate locations with pinpoint accuracy, including "step-by-step indoor navigation to product-level retail customer engagement to proximity-based social networking."

The bigger picture here is Apple's obvious intentions to build a much-improved Maps system by the time it releases its next mobile and desktop operating systems, which are typically announced in the summer and released in beta at the same time. Apple unveiled iOS 7 and OS X Mavericks on June 10 at its Worldwide Developers Conference, but neither operating system featured an improved mapping system. It's always possible Apple could upgrade its Maps apps in small iOS and OS X system updates over the year, but we're far more likely to see an improved Apple Maps next June when we're introduced to iOS 8 and, perhaps, OS X Yosemite?

Apple Maps, introduced in June 2012 as a major feature in iOS 6, was harshly criticized by developers and consumers, especially since Apple had removed Google Maps as the mapping mainstay in iOS to make room for Apple's in-house solution. A Frankenstein monster of three separate companies -- PlacebasePoly9 and C3 Technologies, purchased in 2009, 2010 and 2011, respectively -- Apple Maps still lacked a great deal of important information about roads, buildings and directions. With engineers and information from WiFiSLAM, Locationary, HopStop and now Embark, Apple should have plenty of granular mapping and navigation data to help Apple Maps be a real contender by the time we see iOS 8 next year.

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