While the deal isn't yet closed, it's a big moment. I mean, Google owns satellites now! And the deal falls into a pattern we've seen so far in 2014, of big companies chasing the next wave of revenue, by entering new markets through acquisitions.
Skybox, after all, is only one of many similar small-satellite startups.
But I think there's something more here, something that makes
Skybox's Satellites Are Different
As I wrote in January, the ability to send small satellites into space has changed the satellite industry: Instead of hurling singular and unique devices beyond the atmosphere, with multi-million-dollar price tags and reams of insurance; companies can now send many cheaper probes into orbit. The increase in the number of devices has let companies specialize in mass-producing its parts, which has also brought down costs.
There are many companies planning to put cameras in the sky; some remain in stealth mode. But of this new crop of small-satellite startups, Skybox often seemed the most enterprising.
First, Skybox's satellites capture video—the first commercially available, high-resolution video of Earth. Many of Skybox's competitors only aspire to medium- or high-resolution still photography.
So far, Skybox's satellites differ from all these firms. Note though, if even some of these companies succeed, a deluge of imagery will follow them. Hundreds of Earth-observing satellites means there will be at least thousands of new photographs everyday. Who will look at all those pictures?
This is Skybox's second strength.
Skybox's Business Could Be Different
Right now, the raw imagery created by satellite cameras can be hard to decode and process for non-experts. Therefore, many companies like Skybox hope to sell "information, not imagery." Instead of pixels, they'll give customers algorithmically-harvested assessments of what's in the pixels. For example, using regular satellite-collected data, an algorithm could theoretically look for leaks in an Arctic pipeline and alert the pipeline's owners when one appeared. Another could estimate the number of cars in all the
Note the word theoretically. Algorithms that can scan and successfully detect that level of detail don't seem to exist yet. Facebook bought an Israeli facial recognition company in 2012 for an undisclosed price, in part because it can process pixelated specificity.
Skybox has long talked a slightly different game. It wouldn't sell pixels or information about them. Instead, it said, it would create a huge archive of data about the Earth, that included not only its own satellite imagery but also historical weather reports and public satellite imagery. Inside this "cloud
"There's never been a good sandbox in this industry," Skybox's co-founder,
What did he mean [by that]? Something like this: In the past half decade, companies have sprung up around Amazon's hosted cloud services. Amazon operates massive web servers, tools so adaptable you can build a company around them without having to actually pay to operate a data center. Amazon lets its customers pay for what they need, or can use, and no more.
Amazon's cloud services make billions of dollars every year. Skybox's goal was to agglomerate all that historical data it had and make one of these—a cloud computing service—that specifically dealt in data about the Earth.
In other words, Skybox's success doesn't depend on it developing a perfect image-evaluation algorithm. It merely depends on another developer using its cloud to develop an algorithm.
Now it joins
No, it seems possible
The first? Skybox will help
The second? Right now, Amazon's cloud product dwarfs
If Google follows Skybox's lead and creates its own cloud service for data about the Earth, then it might have a vanguard product: an industry-leading cloud service of its own. (Think how useful such a service would be not only to financial speculators or Big Agriculture, but to anyone running a global supply chain.)
To justify Google's purchase of Skybox, many will look to the sky. They don't have to look all the way to space, though: The real answer is in the cloud.
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