Apple secretly acquired a search startup in 2013 and is using its technology to power the App Store, according to TechCrunch’s Ingrid Lunden.
The App Store is notoriously difficult to navigate. It contains millions of apps, and so users can struggle with copycats and figuring out the right keywords to find the apps they’re looking for. Ottocat launched in 2013, and developed a solution to navigating the App Store: a “nested” navigation model that sorted apps into categories and subcategories.
Using traditional app store search, a user might search for “tennis” to look for a training app, but be overwhelmed with minigames, company-specific apps, interactive stories, and so on. Ottocat’s platform would let users drill down through categories to find only the kind of apps they’re looking for — even if they don’t have a specific one in mind.
Within a year, however, Ottocat mysteriously went dark. It hasn’t tweeted since 2013, and its website is a blank page. Apple then launched the App Store’s “Explore” feature a few months after the believed acquisition date, using very similar functionality to that developed by Ottocat.
This is typically what happens when Apple acquires a startup: Unless it’s a particularly high-profile company — take Beats, for example — there is rarely any kind of public announcement regarding acquisitions. These deals can sometimes even go unnoticed for years — as was the case with British big data startup Acunu, the acquisition of which was only revealed when employees updated their LinkedIn profiles to list Apple as their new employer.
With Ottocat, however, there aren’t even the normal signs of an Apple acquisition. Instead, Lunden points to a patent by Ottocat co-founder Edwin Cooper, which lists Apple Inc. as the “original assignee.” This indicates that Cooper has moved to the Cupertino company — and when taken with the timing of Ottocat’s disappearance and the launch of Explore, strongly suggests the entire company was bought up in an acqui-hire.
We’ve reached out to Apple for comment, and will update when they respond.