A former Topsy employee has an interesting theory on why Apple shut down this $200 million acquisition

Aaron Hayes-Roth is the vice president of strategic alliances at social media monitoring company Brandwatch. Prior to that, he was director of business development at Topsy.
Two years ago, Apple bought the company I worked for at the time, Topsy Labs. With a real-time search engine covering the full archive of Twitter back to 2006, Topsy had the fastest and most complete coverage of the data on that social network. But how was Twitter data relevant to Apple? Many speculated.

On December 16, Apple finally shut down the Topsy product, after having discontinued its enterprise solution one year ago. Many of us, both from inside and outside the social marketing ecosystem, will miss its existence – the free tool was simple and elegant, and had a blisteringly fast speed to insight.

So, two years later and now with the final nail in the publicly-facing Topsy coffin, what did Apple get for its >$200 million?

Disclaimer: what follows has not been influenced or informed by either former Topsy employees, or anyone else from inside of Apple. They are purely my thoughts based on my experience pre-acquisition and insights gleaned from the social marketing ecosystem.

Topsy made a name for itself as the fastest, most complete compendium of Twitter data available to both individual users and to enterprise social marketers. It could deliver insights from conversations on Twitter that happened anytime in that company’s history, dating back to the first tweet in 2006. The focus was narrow, but deep. And in its depth, impressive.

But Apple has little engagement with Twitter. The company joined Twitter in 2011, and has yet to Tweet a single time. What many people both inside the industry (and almost everyone outside of it) didn’t understand in 2013, is that Apple didn’t buy Topsy for its Twitter data; what it bought was an architecture and framework for extremely fast, eminently scalable search and indexing functionality.

While Topsy had only at the time succeeded in devouring and then serving up Twitter data on demand, Twitter itself was simply one demonstrable data set on top of which the Topsy system ran. While I have deep conviction in the insights and analysis to be gleaned from social media (I am after all still in the industry two years later), Apple was not interested in joining the social media intelligence game. It was, however, interested in disrupting the way people search.

One need only look at two trends to complete the equation:

  1. The usage trends on the iPhone and iPad indicated apps were dominating user time spent (85%) on devices, rather than browser usage / searching, and the amount has been consistently increasing over the history of iOS.
  2. Apple wants to eat Google’s Search Ad lunch.

Now take out your iOS device. Swipe left. Type in the first search term that comes into your head. And take a look at the spotlight results delivered instantly from the web, from Wikipedia, your phone’s stored content, and from data within all of your apps. In 2013, the results were simply a list of App & Contact name matches. Apple & Topsy have just abstracted the Google search bar from your search process. The Topsy deal was never about Twitter, it was about Google all along.

Don’t believe me? Scroll down to the very bottom of your spotlight search… In case you simply must scratch your old-school, browser search bar itch, there’s your option: “Show More in Bing.”

So, on its two year anniversary, the mystery is laid to rest. What became of the $200 million acquisition? Head to www.topsy.com to find closure.

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