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Heads were scratching when Microsoft announced last week it was acquiring San Francisco-based Mobile Data Lab's MileIQ app, a maker of a popular mileage tracking app available for both iOS and Android — but not Windows Phone. 

The absence of a Windows Phone app was not what set minds wondering about the acquisition though, as Microsoft has made clear it is embracing all platforms including those of its rivals.

As for the app itself, it is a no-brainer. MileIQ now has more than 1 million users and for the last year or so has been one among the top-grossing finance apps in iTunes. The app tracks mileage automatically for users who need the data to claim for work or tax reporting purposes. It bills itself as Internal Revenue Service compliant and has a version for CPAs who deal with this minutia on a day-to-day basis.

What's Up?

What is perplexing about the acquisition is how Microsoft will use MileIQ in its portfolio going forward. For it is clear, based on the comments Rajesh Jha, Corporate Vice President of Outlook and Office 365, made in the blog post announcing the deal, that Redmond has something in mind besides the usual "mobile-first, cloud-first" productivity play.

To be clear, Jha did use that language — mobile-first, cloud-first — to place MobileIQ in the tech ecosystem. He also lauded the savings the app generates for users, noting that the average MileIQ subscriber is able to deduct $547 per month in business miles.

In short, Microsoft does value MileIQ for its standalone productivity.

But then he said this: "The [Mobile Data Lab] team will continue to build and offer mobile productivity solutions and look to take advantage of insights from Office 365 and the Office Graph."

Mobile Data Labs CEO Chuck Dietrich's blog post alluded to similar possibilities. "Microsoft's ambition to reinvent personal productivity and business processes couldn't be more aligned with our goals," Dietrich wrote.

"With our shared passion and commitment to mobile productivity…MileIQ aims to advance this mutual vision by continuing to build services for self-directed workers–services like MileIQ that are automated, intuitive and give users back time, money and peace of mind."

Excel, Cortana?

Here would be a good place to further describe the range of functions that MileIQ delivers, or rather how it is delivers it.

It uses the sensors in a smart device to capture — or rather make that "contextually capture" as Jha described it — log and calculate business miles.

Excel and Cortana are the immediate possibilities that come to mind as to where MileIQ could add value to Microsoft's portfolio.

But what to make of Jha's reference to Office Graph, which is based on Microsoft's FAST enterprise search solution and used to surface social networking information across various Office 365 products by keeping track of relationships between people, as well as between people and their context. It can also differentiate between context that is "close" to us and content that is "far away."

Some Intriguing Possibilities

The obvious thing for Microsoft to do is just leave the application in place on Android and iOS, Joshua Trupin, research VP of Office 365 and Services at the Kirkland, Wash.-based consulting firm Directions on Microsoft told CMSWire. "But their mention of the Office Graph opens up some intriguing possibilities."

By itself, the number of miles traveled is of minimal interest in relation to what the Office Graph itself does, Trupin said. "However, location data as a side benefit of this tracking could become valuable data — as long as it's treated as Personally Identifiable Information."

"This information could take on more value when combined with other data points, perhaps as a new factor in proximity scoring between users," he said, explaining that when you work closer to someone else, the content they create may be more relevant, and therefore be surfaced with Delve more readily. Delve is an application built on Office Graph that displays the content that is "close enough" to us.

Enhancing Delve Analytics

"Combined with their recent acquisition of VoloMetrix, Microsoft could tweak the MileIQ technology to improve their upcoming Delve Organizational Analytics service by offering information on how efficiently salespeople travel," Trupin said. 

It could analyze, for example,  whether the reps miss nearby sales calls and how many customers they are able to meet in person in one day. "Eventually, it could lead to more efficient territory planning, and could help mobile-based customer-facing employees in sales and services consolidate travel," he said.

The bottom line: MileIQ's mileage-tracker is a great app, popular for good reason. But it won't add that much to the Office portfolio as a stand-alone.  

The play here — we think — is MileIQ's underlying technology and its existing data points combined with other technologies.

Title image by Nicolai Berntsen