U.S. stocks were lower on Wednesday as the benchmark S&P 500 fell 0.4% and the narrower Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES:^DJI) was off by 0.6%. The technology-heavy Nasdaq Composite Index (NASDAQINDEX:^IXIC) -- ordinarily more volatile than the broad market -- lost just 0.1%.
Search giant Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) marginally underperformed the Nasdaq today, with a 0.3% drop, but I'm more interested in the announcement late yesterday that the company is acquiring satellite and imagery data specialist Skybox Imaging for $500 million – a deal that that will help advance Google's goals on at least two fronts. (More on this in a moment.) If you're looking for a deal rationale, it all comes back to who controls valuable data and access to that data -- or, in less mercantilist, more lofty terms, "Google's mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful."
Founded in 2009, Skybox Imaging is one of those companies that has you asking: "How did they accomplish so much, so quickly?" (A bit like Google, you might say.) Last November, at less than five years old, it launched a small, cheap satellite that is nevertheless equipped to capture high-definition pictures and video of the Earth, like the following video of the Burj Khalifa, in which you can actually spot a jet liner flying past on the bottom of the screen:
Even before the acquisition, Skybox was planning to launch 23 more satellites over the next five years, each generating a terabyte of data per day. The synergies with Google Maps is obvious, and sure enough, improving Maps will be Skybox's first priority. Maps is one of Google's most valuable applications, and it's particularly useful when it is paired with the geo-location capability of smartphones and tablets -- functionality that still makes me marvel every time I use it. According to The Wall Street Journal, Google currently sources the images for Maps from approximately 1,000 different sources.
Fittingly for a company that is about to join Google, Skybox has expertise not simply in generating satellite data, but also in managing that data, having developed a software platform for its clients, which include financial firms. (By tracking port activity, Skybox could help detect changes in economic growth, for example.) That expertise is central to Skybox's mission. In April, co-founder and Chief Product Officer Dan Berkenstock told the Financial Times, "We see ourselves as a data platform company that just happens to be launching a fleet of imaging satellites."
Over a longer term, Skybox's know-how could also complement some of Google's existing "moonshot" projects to add Internet access to less populated regions through the use of balloons, drones, and, yes, satellites. From a shareholder's perspective, not all of these projects will necessarily earn an economic return -- or any return at all, perhaps -- however, Messrs. Brin and Page have brought the company this far, so perhaps they deserve the benefit of the doubt?
Google is one of the most exciting, forward-thinking businesses out there. I'm rather curious to see what it will dream up next.