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Recent Entries

Starbucks In-Store Wi-Fi Content Network Launches
Google Permanently Halts Street View Wi-Fi Collection
Skyhook Sues Google over Patents and Pressure
Wi-Fi Data Collection for Location Expands
Devicescape Enters Wi-Fi Location Business
Apple Booted Skyhook, Google Location Services in iOS 4
Google Restarts Street View without Wi-Fi Scanning
Google Has Been Collecting Wi-Fi Data, Accidentally
Australia Hysteria over Google Wi-Fi Scanning
Motorola Picks Skyhook Wireless for Location

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October 19, 2010

Starbucks In-Store Wi-Fi Content Network Launches

By Glenn Fleishman

Read the Wall Street Journal at no cost in a Starbucks over Wi-Fi: Starbucks first started talking about some of these ideas in...2001. Yes, the advantage of a decade on the Wi-Fi and hotspot beat is that you remember the first time this stuff came around. At that time Microsoft was a content partner, and would deliver local results in a walled garden. Times have changed, but just a little.

The Starbucks Digital Network is live, and requires a visit to a Starbucks store with a Wi-Fi capable device. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't know of any other effort that isn't quite limited—such as the movies available for rental at the Denver airport over its free network. All other location-specific, network-only content tends to be dull, like a portal with local weather reports.

The SDN gives you The Wall Street Journal for free, which otherwise costs over $100/yr. The New York Times is in on the action, with its New York Times Reader 2.0 Web app, which delivers a more interactive reading experience, akin to an iOS app. Apple will offer free videos and music. The awkwardly named Bookish Reading Club will let you read excerpts and full books in the store, too. Nick Jr. Boost, an $80/yr subscription service, is free on the SDN. Zagat's on tap, too. Other proximity-based content will be featured as well that's available for free outside of the coffeeshop's confines.

It's a clever move for Starbucks to counter its McDonald's competition, where Mickey D wants to service you quickly and send you on your way. Starbucks has peak hours of 5 am to 9 am, as I understand it, when people are inclined to move in and out fast in any case. After 9 am, the day at most stores unfolds more slowly, and lingering is a good idea.

Posted by Glenn Fleishman at 9:07 PM | Permanent Link | Categories: Free, Hot Spot, Location | No Comments | No TrackBacks

Google Permanently Halts Street View Wi-Fi Collection

By Glenn Fleishman

Cnet reports Google won't resume vehicle-based Wi-Fi location collection: Google had a passel of problems this year around the world related to how it was scanning for Wi-Fi and (it says) accidentally storing some publicly broadcast information. Google was collecting Wi-Fi network names, unique identifiers, and signal strength information and associating snapshots of such details with GPS coordinates while also taking pictures for Street View. Wi-Fi positioning systems can analyze a snapshot made by a mobile or desktop device and provide GPS-like results in urban and suburban areas.

But Google hasn't given up on scanning, as it can rely on location information from Android-equipped phones, which pretty much all have GPS receivers built in and a data path at nearly all times back to the central servers to deliver the Wi-Fi snapshots and associated location information.

Wi-Fi positioning is used to provide a quick fix where GPS satellites aren't as reachable, and works well indoors where GPS receivers in mobile devices function poorly. Skyhook Wireless was the pioneer in this area, but is no longer provided data (and thus receiving data) from Apple, and filed two lawsuits a few weeks ago alleging Google interfered in relationships Skyhook had with two major handset makers delivering Android-based phones.

Posted by Glenn Fleishman at 5:05 PM | Permanent Link | Categories: Location | No Comments

September 15, 2010

Skyhook Sues Google over Patents and Pressure

By Glenn Fleishman

Bloomberg reports Skyhook Wireless has sued Google over two separate matters: It's no surprise to me that Skyhook might maintain it has patents that Google was violating for deriving location from Wi-Fi signals. Skyhook goes way back, when Google wasn't even showing ads on its search results, and Skyhook was still developing its initial database. The suit reportedly alleges four patents were violated.

However, the other charge in the suit is more surprising. Skyhook says that Google threatened Android handset makers Motorola and Samsung in a way that I didn't think was even possible.

Android is an "open" operating system in name only. Sure, you can get the source code and mess around with it, but there are no mainstream generic Android phones that work on any carrier, and no carrier-sold phones are simple to crack open and do what you will.

"Open" refers to a carrier's ability to modify the phone's software to its will, not the consumer or developers'. In fact, many Android phones come with garbageware installed on the phones' home screen, with no way to remove it.

Skyhook alleges that Google's Android chief, Andy Rubin, specifically pressured Motorola by stating that with Skyhook's technology on board, Motorola phones would be in violation of "Android licensing terms." Strange, for an open system. Samsung apparently also was pressured to remove Skyhook's software.

Update: I've read the lawsuit about Google interfering with business partners, and the specific issue at stake for Motorola and (ostensibly) Samsung was the use of the "Android Compatible" brand and program; without this certification, a vendor can't participate in the Android Marketplace, among other things.

Apple recently removed Skyhook Wireless technology from new versions of its iOS operating system, and is gathering location information itself. But no threats were alleged.

Posted by Glenn Fleishman at 10:15 PM | Permanent Link | Categories: Legal, Location | No Comments | No TrackBacks

September 8, 2010

Wi-Fi Data Collection for Location Expands

By Glenn Fleishman

Excellent report on the state of Wi-Fi data collection and how it's continuing to expand: Google doesn't collect Wi-Fi from Street View (at least in some countries) following its data acquisition debacle, but Android does. And iPhones. And trucks driven by Skyhook Wireless. And other sources.

Bob McMillan at IDG News Service runs through how it works, the current efforts, and where privacy concerns lie. In general, publicly broadcast information is hard to contain, but McMillan examines the connection between collecting millions of SSID and MAC association by location and making this available in easily retrievable form, as Google does.

Posted by Glenn Fleishman at 1:22 PM | Permanent Link | Categories: Location, Security | No Comments

August 12, 2010

Devicescape Enters Wi-Fi Location Business

By Glenn Fleishman

Devicescape will offer SoftGPS, another way for device makers to obtain coordinates for mobile equipment on the go, GPS or no: I've written before that Devicescape and Skyhook Wireless are two of my favorite companies in the back-end Wi-Fi space because what they do is so clever. Both have been around for years; both are seeing the payoff for consistently working towards intelligible goals. And both rely on their software or data being used by other firms.

Of course, they're now in competition for some of the location services dollars. It makes sense. Skyhook Wireless bootstrapped itself into the Wi-Fi positioning business through brute force driving. It still uses driving as a primary component in how it provides fairly precise latitude and longitude based on an analysis of Wi-Fi network IDs and the corresponding signal strength around a device.

But Skyhook also gathers data, massive massive amounts of data, from mobile devices, largely smartphones. Each time a smartphone snapshots a network environment and sends that information to Skyhook, the company not only replies with GPS-like data, but it adds the collected information into its databases to refine, update, or expand its knowledge.

Devicescape thus finds itself in a similar footing. Without having fleets of wardriving trucks, Devicescape does have its software installed in millions of devices worldwide, and gathers the same kind of snapshots. The company has also collected the information and positions of millions of hotspots. This information put together leads inexorably to the desire to make money off it. You don't collect a billion (or 10 billion?) pieces of such information without wanting it to generate some cash in return.

The demand for location services is extremely high now that the pieces are in place by many content providers to deliver general and specialized information relating to where you're precisely standing. That ranges across simple mapping, navigation and directions, advertising, yellow page-like business data, and augmented reality (where information is overlaid on a live video stream of your surroundings, for instance).

While the focus has been on smartphones and other cellular devices, that may be misplaced. In most such devices, GPS (and, most of the time, Assisted GPS) provides primary information with Wi-Fi and cellular triangulation a secondary or supplementary factor.

But what about the thousands of current and future mobile doodads that won't have a GPS chip, but for which location is a useful component? That's where Devicescape and Skyhook will contend. And Devicescape has an advantage there.

Devicescape has relationships with many hotspot networks and the software that allows authentication to free and open networks. That means Devicescape's SoftGPS will likely be able to connect to its back-end servers quite a lot of the time, where Skyhook will be relying on a network connection made by the user, or a 2G or 3G cellular data connection.

Both companies can offer "deferred" lookup, too. That's what I get with my Eye-Fi cards, the SD camera cards with Wi-Fi built-in. The Eye-Fi (with the right model or add-on subscription) captures Wi-Fi scans along with photos. When you use its software to transfer photos, a Skyhook lookup happens and adds geotagging (EXIF metadata) to the images.

I tend to disagree with my colleague Om Malik, who writes at this GigaOm site that Devicescape "may find itself outgunned" in competition with Google and Skyhook, while contending with Apple and Nokia no longer needing to outsource for such Wi-Fi-based information. (Apple recently stopped using Skyhook in its iOS: neither the iPad nor iOS 4 uses that firm's data.)

Rather, the market for location is expanding, and not everyone wants to be in bed with Google, nor will Skyhook have the right mix or technology for each potential customer. And, Om omits the fact that Google has agreed to be or is prohibited from collecting Wi-Fi data from Street View in many countries, although Android-based location collection is likely unimpaired.

The addition of Devicescape to the Wi-Fi location market seems like a clear win for everyone but Skyhook, which now has to contend with a potentially strong and savvy competitor that knows plenty about device-level driver and OS integration. For manufacturers, service providers, and customers, there will likely be a faster pace of devices knowing where we are.

Posted by Glenn Fleishman at 4:15 PM | Permanent Link | Categories: Financial, Location | No Comments

July 29, 2010

Apple Booted Skyhook, Google Location Services in iOS 4

By Glenn Fleishman

TechCrunch read Apple's letter to a congressman about the kind of data it collects more carefully than most: The letter says Apple dropped Google (which was, I believe, supplying cellular tower triangulation information) and Skyhook Wireless from iOS 4, which powers the iPhone 4 and 2008 and 2009 models of iPhone and iPod touch.

Long-time readers of this site know that Skyhook Wireless has spent many years driving the streets of major cities and aggregating information provided in the form of queries from mobile devices to build a comprehensive and constantly updated Wi-Fi positioning system. While Wi-Fi isn't precise, it's not far off from GPS in urban areas.

As more mobile devices gain full-featured GPS chips and functions, Wi-Fi positioning remains important as a component in Assisted GPS (which allows a GPS to get a fix faster) and in providing an initial rapid location assessment, sometimes in a few seconds.

But location data is incredibly valuable, and owning the data is perhaps worth the price. Apple has apparently, quietly generated its own Wi-Fi and cell tower databases. It has enough mobile devices in the field with GPS receivers that it can use that information to build a comprehensive picture of most cities, I'd imagine. Every time a device queries location and sends a Wi-Fi and cell environmental scan with or without GPS coordinates, that's more data to crunch.

I thought Skyhook Wireless would have a leg up here because of Google's agreement to not scan for Wi-Fi in several countries (or perhaps worldwide) after it's data-collection debacle with Street View. And Apple's not the only fish in the pond. Skyhook has deals with many, many other platforms and providers.

Posted by Glenn Fleishman at 8:34 PM | Permanent Link | Categories: Location | No Comments | No TrackBacks

July 9, 2010

Google Restarts Street View without Wi-Fi Scanning

By Glenn Fleishman

As I predicted, Google won't be sucking down Wi-Fi signals in its future Street View efforts in some countries: After the debacle of Google first saying it wasn't collecting data from Wi-Fi networks, only scanning for readily available public information, and then discovering and admitting it had stored information, the company is taking a different tack.

It's restarting Street View photography in Ireland, Norway, South Africa, and Sweden, but vehicles won't have Wi-Fi hardware on board, and the software has been vetted by a third-party to ensure there's no component that might have collected Wi-Fi data still installed (even though removing the hardware might be seen as enough).

I thought that the likely outcome for Google for its missteps was likely a very tiny amount of money in the forms of fines or voluntary settlement figures, but no criminal charges nor more than a technical slap on the rest--so long as Google agreed to stop scanning Wi-Fi signals, even if it promised to stop collecting data.

By being seemingly forced to exit the Wi-Fi positioning business, Skyhook Wireless reaps the biggest rewards, in that it will be the only worldwide provider of such information.

However, Google also uses the Android platform to collect Wi-Fi positioning information--something also employed by Skyhook Wireless, as reported a few weeks ago. Every time a mobile devices sends a snapshot of the Wi-Fi environment to a Google or Skyhook server for lookup, that information further refines location data for subsequent users.

But mobile-submitted data isn't enough. For one thing, most of this data isn't tagged with reliable GPS coordinates when sent to the server--the intent of sending to the server is to obtain latitude and longitude in the first place. Skyhook and, formerly Google, drives with precision GPS receives and high-gain antennas to seed and re-seed their databases.

Meanwhile, in Australia, the country's privacy commissioner has found Google broke the law in sucking down data, even though such data was being publicly disseminated. The Sydney Morning Herald quotes commissioner Karen Curtis saying, "Any collection of personal information would have breached the Australian Privacy Act."

But I fear this sends the wrong message. Curtis says, "Australians should reasonably expect that private communications remain private." Not quite. If you're sending information unencrypted when the facility to protect that information is readily (and freely) available in the hardware you purchased, then you are sending private information in a public fashion, and shouldn't enjoy any expectation of privacy. Setting the bar that publicly broadcast information ensures privacy protections seems a bit rich.

Nevertheless, Google has apologized to Australians. Expect more apologies to be forthcoming.

Posted by Glenn Fleishman at 12:52 PM | Permanent Link | Categories: Legal, Location | No Comments

May 14, 2010

Google Has Been Collecting Wi-Fi Data, Accidentally

By Glenn Fleishman

Google says it's inadvertently been recording packets from unsecured Wi-Fi networks while sniffing for publicly available information: Remember how Google said its scans of Wi-Fi networks while carrying out Street View photography were innocuous? Remember how I defended the practice, and said nothing in what Google was doing was different or more personally invasive than Skyhook Wireless or others? Oops.

Google now reveals that it's discovered code written in 2006 as the basis of its Wi-Fi scanning system in Street View contains a portion that samples data on networks that aren't secured, presumably as a tool for statistical analysis of what people are doing. That's a no-no in 2006 and today, and may result in fines and consent agreements.

Google might have caused themselves lasting harm. I can believe this was unintentional; the company is, frankly, sloppy about managing its projects. The firm said it has 600 GB of such data, mostly fragmentary as the Street View vehicles are in constant motion. Given the petabytes of Street View imagery, that's also plausible that it didn't notice the 600 GB of other data collected over years.

Street View was taken off the road briefly, and the company has said it won't be scanning for Wi-Fi temporarily as it assesses what's happened. I wouldn't be surprised if the firm is pressured into agreeing to not gather Wi-Fi info at all in the future by various countries, or possibly worldwide. That's good news for Skyhook Wireless, as it would be the only worldwide purveyor of such information.

I don't feel too foolish about my previous posts, because I was discussing the publicly available information that Wi-Fi networks announce from access points. The privacy concerns raised have to do with how such information could be associated with private information (Google searches, email, and other elements). I have to say that Google's accident makes that kind of association far more reasonable to raise, intentional or not.

Update: The German privacy commissioner has responded angrily.

Posted by Glenn Fleishman at 11:02 PM | Permanent Link | Categories: Cluelessness, International, Legal, Location | 3 Comments | No TrackBacks

May 12, 2010

Australia Hysteria over Google Wi-Fi Scanning

By Glenn Fleishman

The head of Electronic Frontiers Australia is making ridiculous statements about Wi-Fi positioning: Google is being excoriated now in Australia for failing to disclose that it is scanning public Wi-Fi network signals while driving for Street View image captures and mapping. The electronic privacy advocacy group EFA's vice-chair Geordie Guy is way off base in his technical statements about this matter.

As a refugee from Google Buzz and someone who deleted his Facebook account permanently (or so I hope) several weeks ago, I have no truck with the notion that corporations gathering and collating information about me will use it appropriately. Buzz was proof of that. Buzz was a betrayal of Gmail users.

But there's a sky-is-falling attitude here about Wi-Fi signal scanning that needs to be fought back against, because it's simply wrong. There is no sensible way for Google to associate specific Wi-Fi networks with specific queries or individuals because the Wi-Fi network scan simply doesn't contain information that's sent out as part of a query to Google. (I'd be terrified if it did, however.)

As I wrote on 23 April 2010, Google--like Skyhook Wireless, which is mentioned in this Australian article--only scans publicly available passively scannable data.

EFA's Guy says, Google is "collecting data that could enable it to physically map that information to a physical street and presumably a physical house." I categorically reject that. The Wi-Fi network name and BSSID (the unique MAC address assigned to a Wi-Fi access point) aren't associated with data that's sent over a browser. Google can't determine the gateway IP address or a public IP address from a Wi-Fi router signal, nor do browser queries contain that information.

If you're using Google's extensions for geolocation--which is part of the latest release of its Chrome browser--Google could conceivably take the Wi-Fi information your browser provides as part of geolocation data and associate it with queries...but it's already doing that. If you let Google look up your location, well, they have your location now, don't they?

Guy goes on to ask technically inaccurate questions that weaken his valid privacy concerns. "Google talks about wireless routers at home but what about the printers, computers, mobile phones and other devices that might be sending out wireless information?" Those devices don't send out beaconing information. On unsecured networks, you could sniff that data, which is likely illegal to do in most developed nations, including the United States, Europe, and Australia. I don't suspect Google is pulling that information down. On secured networks, that information isn't actually available even to sniffers.

Guy also says the EFA is unaware of similar efforts. He apparently wasn't previously aware of Skyhook Wireless, which has been driving all Australia for a few years, along with a good hunk of the rest of the world. Guy excuses this by stating that Skyhook doesn't have cached search information against which to correlate scans, but I've already explained why that's not a valid concern in the form stated.

He goes on (this guy doesn't stop) to explain incorrectly what a MAC address is: "A MAC address on a home wireless connection or any other piece of electronics that uses Wi-Fi is a serial number, it's unique." Sure, but since when does a serial number get you anything about a product or a device?

Guy says, speciously, "If Google rang you up...and asked you to read out a serial number of your mobile phone, what would you say? I'd tell them its none of their business. If I saw them on the street with binoculars trying to read it, I'd close the curtains."

Right. And the strawman here? The Wi-Fi router address that's being publicly broadcast is like the street number on your house, not the serial number on your mobile phone.

A more sensible response is in the article from Australia's privacy commissioner. And might I say, bravo, Oz, for having such a commissioner. "From a privacy perspective, our preliminary inquiries have indicated that the information about Wi-Fi data that Google is collecting would not be considered personal information under the Privacy Act," said Karen Curtis. Right.

If you don't want your Wi-Fi router's public data that doesn't identify you personally scanned, don't use Wi-Fi or set your network to "closed," which prevents the kind of passive scanning from being performed by Google et al. If you use Wi-Fi, it uses public unlicensed airwaves, and the notion that some data might be leaked is just part of the rules of the game.

You're not obliged to use Wi-Fi, Guy.

Posted by Glenn Fleishman at 9:46 PM | Permanent Link | Categories: Cluelessness, International, Legal, Location | No Comments | No TrackBacks

April 26, 2010

Motorola Picks Skyhook Wireless for Location

By Glenn Fleishman

Interesting how Motorola, for its Android phones, will mostly use Skyhook Wireless instead of Google: I've never understood why Google didn't buy Skyhook Wireless instead of building its location database. Google's data, in my various testing and in reports I've read, is far worse for location, possibly because Skyhook's been refining its algorithms for longer. Google picks up Wi-Fi data as it drives to record images for Street View, as far as I can tell; Skyhook seems to be focused on Wi-Fi, although the company collects cellular and other data, too.

If Google owned Skyhook, it would be the primary agent of Wi-Fi positioning data for Apple and a number of other companies, which might be a conflict.

The fact that Motorola is comfortable choosing a firm other than Google for a critical Android function is a nice demonstration of Google's intentional lack of control over Android. Google may be providing location data for free to handset makers and carriers; it's not clear.

Posted by Glenn Fleishman at 12:51 PM | Permanent Link | Categories: Location | No Comments

July 1, 2009

Firefox 3.5 Brings Geolocation to Mass Users

By Glenn Fleishman

Firefox 3.5 has shipped with location finding turned on: The latest release of Firefox includes by default the option to use a computer's IP address and, if available, a scan of nearby wireless networks to provide a location to Web sites that use appropriate JavaScript to request a position. Users can opt out when asked, disable location requests for a site, or disable location requests entirely. However, "ask for permission" is on by default.

Firefox is using Google Location Services, which is a combination of cellular tower data that the company has assembled along with some unknown method of collecting and locating Wi-Fi hotspots, much as Skyhook Wireless has been doing for years. Likely, Google gathers this information as it drives the streets for Google Maps.

Mozilla's location mascot

With several tens of millions of smartphones (iPhone and Android-based models mostly) and handhelds (almost entirely the iPod touch) providing location data through various combinations of Wi-Fi, cellular trilateration, and built-in GPS, getting a location instantly may not seem that interesting any more on the desktop or laptop.

But it still seems to have a place. Location has two purposes. One is to find oneself, an existential proposition if I ever heard of one, because you don't know where you are. But the other is to identify your location to someone else because you want them to know where you are for some purpose: personal, commercial, or otherwise.

In the latter category, having location built into a browser lets Web sites offer rich location data even when you're at home. Aren't you frustrated about having to type in repeatedly your street address for work or home to find something in proximity, such as with a store locator? Wouldn't you like to have Web applications that automatically took advantage of your location by providing relevant data you didn't need to look up separately? (There are already plenty of utilities for Mac OS X and Windows that can use location to change system-wide settings, such as backlighting, r to launch or quit programs, or change your instant messaging status.)

Smartphones work best at giving you instant proximity data when you're out and about, because there's zero startup time. You take the phone out, hit the wake button, and run a program. I've become addicted nearly instantly to Urbanspoon after installing it on my iPhone because it tells me with incredibly little fuss what's near me. I needed to find a place to take my older son for lunch, and his appetite doesn't mesh well with restaurants. He agreed to eat a hot dog. I punched hot dog into Urbanspoon and within a few seconds found a suitable place. (He did eat the hot dog, and about a million fries. We went to Schultzy's.)

A laptop is a much more tedious operation for a spur-of-the-moment check. You have to dig it out, find a surface on which to balance it or hold it in your hand, wake it or power it up, find a network connection (unless you have a cell data card), find the Web site you want, and so forth.

The flip side is that when your desktop or laptop is already running, and you need a location-based piece of information, it's far more convenient to get a full, fast browser experience, with a real keyboard you can use to type in what you're looking for.

We'll see how it pans out. Sites have to enable location services, which should work identically in Firefox 3.5 and Chrome, and which will likely spread to other browsers over time if there's interest. (I suspect indexing software can identify if the JavaScript used on sites contains location calls, and smart people will use that to quantify geolocation-aware sites.)

There has to be a pull from sites to make people interested in and expecting to use location services. If all that sites do is enable store locators via this option, I can't see much interest developing over time. But if sites can find unique ways to let the browser plus location combination provide the social networking or sheer utility of many smartphone apps, then the uptake could be large.

Part of this could happen through making laptops act more like smartphones, too, trickling technology back up. While Sprint includes GPS technology in all its 3G networking cards and dongles--and an API for developers--that's about the extent of GPS in most mainstream products.

Netbooks already have many of the attributes of smartphones (small, fast turn-on time), and are starting to gain ubiquitous networking via built-in 3G cell cards. This makes Dell's decision to put a GPS chip in its Mini 10 quite fascinating. The company has also paired with Skyhook Wireless, which will integrate Wi-Fi and GPS data for a location result. The GPS-equipped model ships next week. Pricing is still unknown, but a reputable gadget site puts the cost at $70 above the current $300 to $350 price tag.

This turns a cheap netbook into a potentially fabulous turn-by-turn navigation system--although you certainly want to have a passenger holding it or figure out a mounting system. The Dell Wireless 700 option, as the company labels it, comes with CoPilot software as part of the cost. But it also means that people with netbooks and without smartphones will have fast and accurate location data.

Is this part of a revolution? Location-based services (LBS) have been discussed as the next big thing for targeting advertising, coupons, and, well, information of use for several years. The stars (and satellites) may finally be aligning.

Mozilla Configuration

Location preferences are a bit obscure. By default, permission-based location access is enabled in Firefox 3.5. If you click a link where a site is attempting to use the Geolocation API's JavaScript, you're presented with a prompt along the top bar of the browser, much as with pop-up windows and certain security alerts. On the left you see a message, with the site requesting location data:


On the right, a set of options, which let you set a once-only share (Share Location by itself) or a site-based share (check Remember for This Site and then Share Location). You can also click Don't Share or click the X to close the bar.


If you set site-wide location permissions, then you have to be on a page at the site in order to disable this permission. Select Page Info from the Tools menu, click the Permissions tab, and then you can modify the options for Share Location. You can use a combination of options, such as unchecking Always Ask and setting the radio button to Block or Allow. Or check Always Ask to re-enable that behavior.

To disable geolocation for the browser, type about:config in the Location bar, then type geo.enabled, and finally double click the geo.enabled preference. Repeat these steps (or double click the preference again while displayed) to turn location back on.

Posted by Glenn Fleishman at 3:59 PM | Permanent Link | Categories: Location, Road Warrior | 1 Comment

May 31, 2009

Skyhook Wireless Handles 250M Requests per Day

By Glenn Fleishman

The Wi-Fi positioning firm Skyhook Wireless gets a nice snapshot in the New York Times: I've been following and talking to Skyhook for many years, and the Times nailed the salient points quite well in a non-technical and useful way. The interesting figure is that Skyhook says it handles 250m requests per day for positioning data. There's a terrific video embedded in the article that shows a heatmap of location requests in Manhattan over a 24-hour period.

Most of the requests come from iPhones, Skyhook says. Apple has sold approaching 20m iPhones worldwide, and that means it's likely that the average iPhone users is pushing out several requests a day. I know I do! The iPod touch can also tap into Skyhook's system, but because the touch lacks a second channel to request information it must be connected to a Wi-Fi network in order to retrieve positioning data.

Posted by Glenn Fleishman at 7:40 PM | Permanent Link | Categories: Location, Mainstream Media

May 21, 2009

Skyhook Unveils Loads of Browser Location Partner Sites

By Glenn Fleishman

Skyhook's Loki location-finding service for browsers has a pile of sites enabled to use the technology: Skyhook Wireless has been developing its Loki plug-in and related service for some time, but this is the first big rollout of major partners that have adopted the location-finding approach into their sites. Flickr (click Find My Location), MapQuest, and WeatherBug (click Locate Me) are the marquee partners, but there's a long list of other interesting sites, too.

Skyhook's approach in the browser relies on Wi-Fi, while in smartphones Skyhook (depending on OS and implementation) can tap into Wi-Fi, cellular signals, and a GPS receiver. Skyhook uses the Wi-Fi snapshots sent by client software along with brute force driving of trucks with big antennas and highly accurate GPS to update its databases constantly.

Coordinates can be used for mapping, path finding, tracking (see where you went), pushing location to others (friends, family, colleagues), geotagging photographs, and finding nearby businesses. It's one reason why Sprint pushed so heavily to put GPS in all its data products in order to get the stickiness that comes from people getting used to being able to easily get their location.

There's a lot of interest in location-in-the-browser, where a browser (via plug ins or innate capability) can use one or more network sources to derive a set of coordinates and a degree of confidence. The browser is queried for this data via JavaScript or other methods, and then present the numbers to the Web page or via AJAX or normal form submission to a server--but only with the browser user's permission.

Google, Mozilla, and the W3C are all working on this issue. Google's Gears-based Geolocation API, which works in any browser that supports Gears, was turned into an "informal" W3C proposal that's in active revision; Mozilla will support the API in Firefox 3.5 and later. Google has a non-disclosed way of collecting Wi-Fi access point data, and this data is being used by the Gears Geolocation plug-in, as well as Firefox in 3.5. Firefox will support multiple providers of location data.

Posted by Glenn Fleishman at 10:08 AM | Permanent Link | Categories: Location

June 30, 2008

Skyhook Expands Wi-Fi Positioning to Cell, GPS

By Glenn Fleishman

Skyhook Wireless will combine information from Wi-Fi wardriving, GPS radios, and cell tower signals for better location: The pitch at Skyhook Wireless is that despite its accuracy, satellite-based GPS remains relatively expensive, that it's slow to get a fix when it powers up, and that it's not accurate enough in the middle of cities. Their XPS 2.0 system leverages GPS with the advantages of Skyhook's Wi-Fi signal database and algorithms along with cell-tower triangulation.

Ted Morgan, the head of Skyhook, explained in an interview that while GPS is certainly the gold standard, and while it works well in stand-alone devices designed for continuous use and navigation, it's not the right choice by itself for mobile devices. It can take 5 or 10 minutes for a GPS-only device to get an accurate fix on the satellites it needs to give you accurate information. (Various shortcuts can provide less accurate information more quickly.)

"This notion of 'tell a user or consumer to stand outside for 30 seconds before they can search for the nearest pharmacy' is pretty silly," Morgan said. He noted that with all the radios now found in newer mobile devices, using several of them produces a fast and much more accurate result. The iPhone 3G, for instance, sports quad-band 2G, tri-band 3G, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and GPS chips.

Morgan said that A-GPS (assisted GPS) already combines cell tower information with GPS. A cell phone can be told approximately where it is, and thus instead of cycling through 24 satellites, start with the two that are most directly overhead. This can reduce the time to gain a location to as little as 20 seconds, Morgan said, although any kind of movement usually lengthens the time to 30 to 60 seconds.

Skyhook's system takes advantage of this aspect of A-GPS. They let a GPS system grab onto two satellites quickly to correct data from their Wi-Fi Position System (WPS). Morgan said that this reduces the WPS error by 35 to 40 percent through "weak fixes."

Within cities' concrete canyons, "you can only get a true GPS fix about 70 percent of the time outdoor, but you get two satellites all the time," Morgan said. "In the entire footprint, we're able to use this hybrid technology, even though GPS is only available 70 percent of the time." Outside of metro areas, cell towers can still be used to improve GPS startup times.

Skyhook has continued to expand its European coverage for WPS; they cover about 8,000 cities in the US and Canada, which is roughly 70 percent of the population; "it looks exactly like a cellular coverage map," Morgan said, and includes "any town with five streets in it."

In Europe, their current big push, partly because of their inclusion in the iPhone, they cover 70 percent of population in the current countries--the UK, France, and Germany--but they're now at 50 percent of the population of the rest of Western Europe. They're working assiduously in Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, and Australia as well, and looking into China and India. India has very little Wi-Fi, so they may rely more on cell towers there.

The company also announced a partnership with wireless chip maker CSR today, which is a major providers of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth chips to computer and handset makers. Nearly a year and a half ago, Skyhook partnered with SiRF, the dominant worldwide chip supplier for stand-alone GPS gear, that's also making a push into mobile devices. Skyhook obviously needs a win with a cell chip maker, like Infineon, Broadcom, or Qualcomm, given the XPS technology, to score a place in tens of millions of cell phones beyond the iPhone.

Skyhook's technology most recently appeared in a soon-to-ship model of the Eye-Fi--the Explore. The $130 Secure Digital card with Wi-Fi built in allows you to take pictures with any camera, and have the Wi-Fi signal space recorded for later lookup when you upload photos. The pictures are geotagged with that information. The card can be used with Wayport's 10,000 strong Wi-Fi network in the U.S for free in the first year, and $20 per year thereafter. David Pogue of The New York Times recently wrote up the Eye-Fi Explore.

Posted by Glenn Fleishman at 10:25 AM | Permanent Link | Categories: Cellular, Location | 1 Comment

May 11, 2008

Eye-Fi Adds Geotagging, Splits Up Product Line

By Glenn Fleishman

Eye-Fi 1The folks who brought us simple Wi-Fi for digital cameras add locations, modify pricing: Eye-Fi developed a supremely simple 2 GB Secure Digital card that can work with any digital camera and transfer photos over known Wi-Fi networks with no effort. Now they've split their original $99 product offering into three items differentiated by features: Eye-Fi Explore, with Wi-Fi-based geotagging ($129); Eye-Fi Share, for uploading to photo-sharing systems ($99); and Eye-Fi Home, which is a cable-replacement service ($79). The Eye-Fi Explore will be available starting 9-June-2008.

The Eye-Fi Explore product relies on Skyhook Wireless's system of analyzing the signal strength of nearby Wi-Fi networks to extrapolate latitude and longitude. Eye-Fi ties that into their system to stamp images with locations. This deal also ties into Wayport's domestic network of 10,000 hotspots, most of which are McDonald's outlets, allowing free uploading via those systems. The purchase price covers one year of hotspot service. All three products work with Mac OS X Tiger and Leopard, and Windows XP/Vista.

Because Skyhook needs a live Web connection to look up the Wi-Fi environment, Eye-Fi can store the Wi-Fi snapshot when the picture is taken, and manage inserting the appropriate photo metadata (EXIF format) at upload for Flickr and other services that support geotagging.

Geotagging is a very popular idea, something that I'm quite taken with because it pairs the act of taking a photograph with the location at which the picture is taken, making a digital photograph seem a little less untied to reality. But until now, it's been generally quite involved to match a picture with coordinates. A handful of specialized cameras embed GPS chips, and there's software to facilitate other methods, but the cost and battery drain of GPS chips have apparently so far kept it from being a widely deployed feature, while the wonkiness of alternatives doesn't appeal to mainstream users.

Sony once sold this wacky GPS companion (which I just found out isn't available in either released model) that would track your location over time, and use that information to geotag images via a special software program that let you pair its stream of data with your photographs.

Eye-Fi and Skyhook are doing something almost the same, since the camera isn't capturing the GPS data, and the Eye-Fi isn't applying the information live, much of the time. But it's eminently more usable than the Sony system, because the Eye-Fi handles the assembly seamlessly for you.

Now there's just one thing to worry about. Think about this: McDonald's are everywhere, and nearly all of the U.S. locations have Wi-Fi. The Eye-Fi uploads whenever it can, as long as the camera is turned on. You're geotagging images without any effort. Okay, got it? call in sick to work, and run off to take some photos. Your boss, using RSS to subscribe to your Flickr feed, not only sees your pictures as you wander the town, unknowningly promiscuously uploading them via quick-serve restaurants' networks, but also knows precisely where you are.

This makes me suggest that you might set your Flickr upload preferences to keep images private and your geotagging preferences the same. You can then expose the images you want for public consumption. The Panoptican!

Posted by Glenn Fleishman at 9:01 PM | Permanent Link | Categories: Hot Spot, Location, Photography

April 14, 2008

Mobile Post: Wi-Fi Geography

By Glenn Fleishman

What can we learn about what we do from Wi-Fi? Overlaying Wi-Fi on top of a map ties together facts, figures, and behavior, in this mobile post.

Posted by Glenn Fleishman at 3:24 PM | Permanent Link | Categories: Location

March 14, 2008

Mobile Post: MyLoki and My Location

By Glenn Fleishman

MyLoki offers your precise or inexact location: But how many people do you want to know where you are? I discuss granularity, social networking, and location in this audio post.

Posted by Glenn Fleishman at 2:58 PM | Permanent Link | Categories: Location

March 6, 2008

Apple Opens iPhone to Developers, Enterprises

By Glenn Fleishman

Apple adds enterprise features to the iPhone, including 802.1X, and opens it to developers: Today's announcement from Steve Jobs was full of surprises, including the fact that Apple licensed Microsoft's ActiveSync for full Exchange support, and the level at which developers will have access to iPhone hardware and information.

The 2.0 software, free to all current owners of iPhone, will be available in June, which kind of tips the hand as to when we'll see a 3G iPhone, too, I imagine. iPod touch owners will pay a "nominal" upgrade fee, as Apple books iPhone revenue over 24 months and iPod revenue as units are sold.

Apple will pile in all the stuff that enterprises demanded from Research in Motion in the Blackberry platform--and that RIM built in--including support for 802.1X (including WPA2 Enterprise) for authenticated Wi-Fi login, two-factor authentication, certificates, and additional VPN types. They're also adding "remote bricking," a critical feature that allows a stolen or misused phone to be remotely and securely wiped.

On the developer side, Apple is opening up the whole puppy in a way that I didn't expect. I assumed the firm would put limits on whether the cell data connection could be used by apps, but not restrict the Wi-Fi side. The announcement puts nothing off limits except VoIP over cell data, although there's a list of characteristics that software can't contain, such as being malicious or a bandwidth hog. All software is distributed and installed via App Store, available on an iPhone or in iTunes for synchronization. This includes free software. Apple will therefore vet, and ostensibly be able to halt use of programs that exhibit behavior they deem bad. Jobs said, "We can turn off the spigot if we need to." Every app will be signed by a developer certificate.

Developers can have access to location information provided by Google (cell towers) and Skyhook (Wi-Fi) for use in their programs. No mention was made of privacy settings for such. Skyhook's Loki toolbar requires that you grant permission to Web sites that want to obtain your location details; I expect a system-wide approach to that, too.

No mention was made today of a few particular problems with iPhone security, such as the ability to tunnel and traverse a VPN across multiple network media, such as using an iPhone for a secure connection while you travel from work, across the EDGE network, and to hotspots. This likely could be built on top of the enterprise features. You'd also need policy management, such as disallowing certain kinds of connections without a VPN being active or over non-trusted Wi-Fi networks.

Certainly, this is a big step forward for corporate users, mobile applications, and consumer ease on the iPhone platform. The beta is available today to developers; you can become a developer for $99. Amazingly, Apple's developer site crashed and is still unavailable two hours after the press conference ended.

Posted by Glenn Fleishman at 1:05 PM | Permanent Link | Categories: Cellular, Enterprise, Future, Hot Spot, Location, Security

February 17, 2008

Mobile Post: Thoughts on Location Finding (with Wi-Fi) in Mobile Phones

By Glenn Fleishman

It's all about location, in today's mobile phones: Wi-Fi is an aid:
A few thoughts about finding oneself wit hthe modern mobile phone.

Posted by Glenn Fleishman at 8:15 PM | Permanent Link | Categories: Location

January 15, 2008

Apple Adds iPhone Location over Wi-Fi, Base Station Backup, MacBook Air

By Glenn Fleishman

Apple plays to my interests this morning with a set of new products and upgrades tied into wireless data: The news out of San Francisco--where I'm on site--is that Apple is rather keen on Wi-Fi. The company announced several upgrades and new products that take advantage of a lack of wires.

The iPhone location update: The iPhone can now figure out your location by triangulating either the location of nearby cell towers or by fishing around for WI-Fi signals. The cell-tower system uses information from Google, which also provides the map data. Wi-Fi location details come from Skyhook Wireless, a firm I've tracked for years. Because the iPhone can make a connection over either EDGE or Wi-Fi, Skyhook confirmed for me that the iPhone can take its snapshot of the signals around it and transmit that to their servers over either Wi-Fi or EDGE. When connected to a Wi-Fi network, the query can go over Wi-Fi, of course, but could be coupled for better results with cell radio sniffing, too. The iPod touch also gets this Maps improvement, along with a handful of other additions, as a $20 upgrade for existing users; it has to be connected to a Wi-Fi network with Internet access to provide a location, however.

Time Capsule: Apple has scored the much coveted double-win on backups here, by coupling an operating system based backup feature (Time Machine) with a network-attached storage system that requires no configuration. Time Capsule incorporates a full AirPort Extreme Base Station (with 802.11n) with an internal 500 GB or 1 TB hard drive for $299 or $499, respectively. The base station is $179 when purchased by itself. A home network could have one of these puppies and accomplish several related tasks. Backup is for Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard) only, which is a shame, but Apple would like people to upgrade to Leopard ($129) or buy new computers, so one can't precisely blame them.

MacBook Air: The "Air" refers to the lack of connections on this starting-at-$1,799 3 lb, high-performance laptop with a 13.3-inch screen, 80 GB drive, and 2 GB RAM. The MacBook Air has very few connections: there's a USB port, along with a mini-DVI connector and headphone jack, hidden behind a latch, but there's no FireWire (IEEE 1394), no optical drive, and no Ethernet jack. A external optical drive is $99 or you can use another drive on the network (Windows or Mac) via some special software that mounts the drive without any networking hassles. It includes 802.11n and Bluetooth 2.1+EDR.

Posted by Glenn Fleishman at 2:04 PM | Permanent Link | Categories: Consumer Electronics, Hardware, Location

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