In June, Google snatched up satellite mapping company Skybox for $500 million. The company specializes in building relatively affordable mini-satellites ($50 million apiece, cheap for satellites), which can circle the Earth and beam back high-definition images in close to real time.
Ostensibly, Google could use Skybox to continuously update Google Maps. But tucked into a report in The Wall Street Journal this week is a revealing nugget of what could be another, less obvious win for Google:
In 2010, an analyst at UBS discovered that if he bought satellite images of parking lots of Wal-Mart stores, he could predict the company's sales figures before they were revealed in its quarterly report, because cars in lots equal shoppers in stores.
An interesting revelation. But how does that apply to Google?
"We're looking at Foxconn every week," [Skybox cofounder Dan] Berkenstock says, because measuring the density of trucks outside the Taiwanese company's manufacturing facilities tells Skybox when the next iPhone will be released.
Google hasn't said if it plans on using mapping data to gain competitive intelligence. But knowing what your key rivals are up to is, on paper, a clear advantage. Talk about a great bird's-eye view.