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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.
The 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? So...you 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 is...us!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Dash is accepting pre-orders for its $600 subscription-based navigation device with Internet connectivity: Using GPS for location and GPRS and Wi-Fi for connectivity, the Dash Express constantly updates traffic data from its own sources and other Dash devices--unclear on quite how. The Dash Express combines connected PDA features with mapping and navigation. The search is driven by Yahoo Local. You and others can email addresses straight to the device. Monthly fees are $10 with a two-year contract and $13 per month without one. The color screen is 480 by 272 pixels measuring 4.3 inches diagonally. Battery life is two hours but it comes with a car adapter, naturally.
A couple of Central Florida Web designers have built Frooka, a free hotspot directory that's meant for their area: Hyper-localism takes body blows now and then when it's related to reporting; several attempts to get nationally launched sites that enable down-to-the-street reports from individuals with an interest haven't created real firestorms in the news world. But a hyper local Wi-Fi directory? Sounds good to me. The confluence of personal interest and generosity could make it highly accurate because it's so much about what's there, not what's everywhere.
New software ties in Web sites and location: Skyhook Wireless has released Loki 2.0, its revised toolbar for pulling a user's latitude and longitude based on the profile of nearby Wi-Fi networks and their various signal strengths. A connection to an active Wi-Fi network is required, as in the previous release. Skyhook has a massive, constantly updated profile of Wi-Fi signals in most cities in the US, Canada, and Australia, as well as some cities in Europe and soon in Asia.
Morgan said that the company looks to leverage this Web-based programming interface to allow firms to serve extremely local advertising. "There's a real opportunity for these newer ad networks that are building relationships with" yellow page-like companies, Morgan said. Local advertising, dominated by local newspaper, radio, and television, is seen as the last nut--and a big nut at that--for firms like Google, Microsoft, and others to track. (Just a few weeks ago, I might have written Google, DoubleClick, and aQuantive, but that landscape just had a seismic shift.)
Skyhook also has a Channels library (Windows only support at the moment) that allows a user to prefill information on Web sites that aren't Loki-enabled by pulling Skyhook location information and formatting it correctly for a form on a Web site.
For photography, Morgan sees a great boon where users would be able to upload their photographs and choose to have them geotagged--coded with a latitude and longitude--of their current location. Flickr.com and other services support geotagging, and a small number of cameras and add-on peripherals allow GPS-based location tagging. Morgan said Skyhook is working with eyeFi, a firm that has embedded Wi-Fi for file transfer into a 1 GB Secure Digital card that will work with any camera. In a combination of the two firms' tools, "When you take a picture, [our software] does a scan, adds the location, and uploads it to Flickr," Morgan said.
Morgan said the firm had seen 4m location lookups since launch, and has achieved Wi-Fi location coverage for 70 percent of the US population. They're nearing 70 percent in Canada and Australia, and recently finished scanning London, Amsterdam, and Barcelona, with Tokyo, Seoul, and Hong Kong coming in June. The company continuously drives major cities to collect new data, and their software provides information each time a user performs a lookup to calibrate and extend the firm's own records.
The 2.0 toolbar with Channels support is available for Windows XP for Firefox 1.5 and later and Internet Explorer. Support for the developer tools is available for Mac OS X 10.4 with Firefox 2, and Windows Mobile. A toolbar for Mac OS X and for Windows Vista is forthcoming. The software is free.
A bit of backlash emerged from Skyhook Wireless's partnership with AOL: Skyhook has been driving the streets of major cities for years gathering pinpointed signal strength information about Wi-Fi access points. It now has 16m access points recorded in 2,500 cities. This allows it to use a laptop or other device's scan of its surrounding Wi-Fi environment to produce a GPS-like result. They just announced a partnership with AOL that couples their results via a free plug-in for AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) for Windows, that allows you and your buddies to see when you are physically near each other.
Anne P. Mitchell, a greatly respected unsolicited commercial everything fighter, seems to have misinterpreted what Skyhook does: "Skyhook’s trucks have been cruising your street, have identified your home wireless router by its unique code that only your home wifi has - and is correlating it with your location using GPS. And then they put it in a database." Mitchell's posting was picked up at Slashdot and amplified at Computerworld.
I told Mitchell via email that I thought she was looking at this through the wrong end the telescope. Wi-Fi uses a public band. There is no expectation of privacy. It's one reason why I stress that everyone should employ Wi-Fi encryption of some sort or use a virtual private network (VPN) connection to make sure that their locally transferred data isn't sent in the clear. (This is true mostly in urban areas, because proximity to potential crackers and sniffers is the real reason to employ these methods.)
While you can protect your data, you can't protect your base station's identity. That's part of the risk and part of the benefit of using a public band. The BSSID, or unique interface address of the base station, is put out there as public information because it's part of the protocol: Wi-Fi adapters need BSSIDs to identify base stations uniquely. (Spoofing the BSSID is one of the ways that evil twins and other attacks work by fooling your computer into thinking it's connecting to a known network.)
The fact that BSSIDs are spat out with great abandon is why large-scale networks and coffeeshop hotspots work so well: the public space is flooded with information about what's available. The next step is whether what's available is designed for everyone to access or for just the owners of the access point. That requires an attempt at association, and then some kind of authentication if that's enabled. But those next steps involve active attempts at infiltration: they don't rely on passive monitoring of the public space.
The "unique code" that Mitchell refers to is the BSSID, but it only uniquely identifies a piece of hardware that has some temporal existence in your home and business. The correlation in Skyhook's systems is by signal strength and coordinates, not by exact street address. I would suspect that Skyhook could probably connect the BSSID to an actual home in single-family house neighborhoods, but I don't believe that they do, nor have a reason to: databases already exist that map most US residents to their household address, along with details about their income and so forth. What's the benefit of knowing that a given BSSID is matched to a given address? I can't tell, beyond knowing what hardware (Linksys? Beklin? Actiontec?) that someone at that address uses for a Wi-Fi network. Perhaps Linksys would direct mail addresses that used competing access points with coupons?
So they're not really associating your BSSID with your address; they're associating a cluster of BSSIDs by their signal strength with a set of coordinates that represents a given Skyhook truck's position on the street. BSSIDs aren't persistent: they live and die with the life of the particular hardware. When it dies (or is turned off) or a new access point is purchased, the BSSID changes, too. I suspect that hundreds of thousands of BSSIDs disappear or move over the course of a month.
As a public band with no expectation of privacy, there's no way for Skyhook's scanning activities to be taken as an invasion of privacy. When Amazon drove its A9 trucks around cities taking photos of houses and businesses and exactly correlating those with street addresses, I don't recall any outcry about privacy partly because Amazon was using the visible spectrum, publicly available, and public streets. In some countries, both Skyhook and Amazon's activities would probably be illegal, but not for any reason that benefits the public.
Now the partnership with AOL is interesting, because Skyhook and AOL could conceivably associate a BSSID with a particular AIM user at a particular time. That's tricky because the BSSID isn't sent as part of any network communication to higher layers, and it would require AIM to reach down into the network stack (which is possible) and have the computer retrieve the BSSID information, and then AIM could send that along with other instant messaging data. And anyone who downloads the Skyhook plug-in for AIM conceivably wants their location to be known--presumably they're not at home--so they can find their buddies. Perhaps a user ID plus the locations they use would be useful, but AOL can already do that by tracking the IP addresses at which AIM users log in, to a lesser degree of location precision.
There's a related point, which is that Skyhook has no interest in revealing the contents of its database, which represents billions of scans they've performed, as well as scans submitted automatically by their Loki toolbar on individual computers. (The Loki scans help correct and enhance existing information and fill in gaps.) What they sell to partners is the ability to take a reading of all the signals via a Wi-Fi adapter and produce coordinates. Their database is their crown jewel, and one hopes they protect it well.
And anyone with similar resources can reproduce their database. People have been wardriving with GPS receivers for several years, and posting the results into giant databases that are publicly accessible. Skyhook's system does even less and more: they post no information about individual access points, and they provide location information based on a scan, which the wardriving databases don't offer directly.
The takeaway here is that if you use a public band, open to all comers, you can't expect privacy. If you don't like it, you can turn down the signal strength in your router, paint your home's interior with signal-blocking paint, or switch from Wi-Fi to powerline and Ethernet. You could use cell data networks, which are highly private, but the operators know everything about you, and market based on that, anyway.
It's a choice to use Wi-Fi, and it's the same choice we made when entering any public space. People may take our picture, walk up to us and try to talk to us, stare at us--or ignore us.
The Wi-Fi locator firm Skyhook, which relies on public and private Wi-Fi beacons to provide a GPS-like service, has deal with AOL: A free downloadable plug-in for AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) adds a buddy list grouping labeled Near Me, which shows buddies in physical proximity; they can be plotted on a map, even. Skyhook's database now contains 16m access points in the US and Canada. They use 200 trucks to troll 2,500 cities.
Skyhook Wireless breaks into the big time with Sirf deal: Skyhook has a constantly updated database of coordinate-tied Wi-Fi signals that allow it to produce a GPS-like set of results based on a scan of the vicinity from a laptop or handheld. Sirf supplies GPS chips to most of the location-enabled devices--from TomTom, Garmin, Magellan, to name a few--and cell phones in the world. Sirf will integrate Skyhook's system so that mobile devices that use GPS and have Wi-Fi radios can add those results to the mix.
Skyhook's Wireless Position System (WPS--yes, another technology called WPS) will be available as an integrated option to carriers that want to provide location-based services like directions and nearest-business services to phone handset and handheld users.
Skyhook chief Ted Morgan said in an interview that this deal provides full legitimacy to their technology approach. "It's the leading GPS chip company saying yes, there are important areas where GPS doens't work great, and Skyhook is the answer to it," he said.
"It's taken a couple of years for us to win over the GPS world. They've got 15 to 20 years of experience building this system, and to come along with an entirely new model is always treated with some level of suspicion," he noted.
The deal rises on the fact that dual-radio GSM and Wi-Fi phones are already common and likely to become more so. "We think the market for Wi-Fi hybrid cell phones is going to be fairly healthy," Morgan said, citing the "dozen phones" in the work for BT, which has rolled out a converged calling service, and T-Mobile's US entry into the converged market.
Morgan said that Skyhook remains a complement to satellite-based location placement, but that WPS can overcome some of the irritants that today's user of devices with GPS have to deal with. Specifically, Morgan said, GPS devices require as long as a couple of minutes when initially fired up to obtain good satellite fixes.
Skyhook's system requires a few seconds. Skyhook doesn't associate with access points, making signals far too weak to be used for a network connection still viable data points that correspond to its database of 15 million APs. "If you just want to look for where the nearest ATM machine is, you're not going to stare at your phone for two minutes," Morgan said.
The Skyhook system can assist GPS receivers, too, even by providing a general geographical location, which, in turn, allows the GPS receiver to have the right idea about which GPS satellites can be received and where they are located in the sky. Cell phone networks offer a similar sort of assisted GPS using cell-tower locations, but Morgan said that assistance typically works only on the cell operator's home network, where the Wi-Fi option would work anywhere Skyhook has coverage.
Morgan explained that GPS systems can be optimized to take a variety of information to produce better results, and that this works especially well when entirely different technology is employed. Sirf's system will be able to integrate WPS coordinates with GPS coordinates for better accuracy and more quickly than GPS alone.
The company covers about 70 percent of the US population using 200 full-time route drivers. The firm is expanding coverage into Europe and is "working on Asia." Morgan said, "We're going to expand the coverage according to those deals."
Skyhook's software provides a loop back to the firm's servers, so that scans of access points in the vicinity of a device are added to the database of locations. With GPS and WPS in one system, and with the potential of tens of millions of mobile devices deployed, Skyhook could obtain a vast amount of new information that further improves the accuracy and extent of their coverage.
Equipment with GPS and WPS will take a little time to reach market. "You won't see the major device makers until '08," Morgan said, but Wi-Fi-only phones could have the technology as early as the second half of 2007.
The chipmaker CSR wants to preserve existing Bluetooth business by offering GPS as a cheap, incremental improvement: CSR says that it will cost about $1 to add a GPS receiver in a combined Bluetooth/GPS chip, and that the chip--make possible by its acquisition of two GPS firms--will have far higher sensitivity than other chips on the market. E911 service in the US requires some kind of automated location service be embedded in phones. As location services are now being sold by carriers based on their cheap, embedded GPS receivers, CSR may have a market in providing better positioning, a lower bill-of-goods, and better battery life.
MetroFi is proving able at connecting itself with larger partners while still running the show: MetroFi is working with AT&T to provide Wi-Fi service in Riverside, Calif., in a winning bid there, and has bid with that telecom giant for Sacramento. In Portland, today's announcement is that Microsoft will offer a combination of targeted, super-local advertising for the MetroFi network in that largest of Oregon's cities, while also providing local content, such as maps.
GigaOm has more detail, with reporter Katie Fehrenbacher noting that Microsoft can match advertisers to prospective customers by Zip code within the network, and that the MSN division will deliver weather, news, restaurant and nightlife details, movie listings, and local government services. They'll also offer search results, which is a nice way for MSN to insert itself into a market dominated by Google. Fehrenbacher writes that MetroFi and Microsoft are both playing coy about the business relationship and what (if any) money is involved.
If this deal sounds vaguely familiar, we only need rewind to January 2001, when MobileStar signed up as Starbucks Wi-Fi provider. In this press release, those two firms and Microsoft note, "During the coming year, the companies will work together to develop services that leverage the power of the wireless broadband network. For example, customers will be able to download the latest information on local arts and entertainment and shop online while enjoying their beverage."
A few short months later, MobileStar filed for bankruptcy, and by late 2001, T-Mobile (then the separately owned VoiceStream) had acquired the firm's assets out of bankruptcy.
Now, I'm not in any way suggesting a similar fate for MetroFi--I just want to show how that wheel of synergy is a big cycle that keeps turning, turning, turning.
I'd rather point out that providing resources that are local to a given hotspot wasn't a bad idea, although it hasn't caught on to any great extent in the five intervening years. Offering super-local resources for a metro-scale network, however, seems truly useful. If I can power up my laptop as either a resident or visitor in Portland, and have the network know (with my permission, I hope) precisely where I am, then I've jumped ahead several steps in understanding my local surroundings and making decisions about what to do next with my good self and my good money.
Skyhook Wireless's Loki navigation toolbar uses the company's GPS-like Wi-Fi location system: With coordinates in hand, Loki can feed location information to Web sites that use position to provide results. This could include the simple (maps), the useful (Wi-Fi directories), and the mundane (where's the nearest Home Depot?). But it can also include presence, where you can reveal your location to selected others, and all of you can be plotted on a map. Useful for sales forces, repair technicians, and others.
Skyhook has also added SMS notification, which lets you push your location via a text message to a friend or colleague, and a time zone changer, which uses the current location to set the system clock. Skyhook also says it's improved the speed and accuracy of lookups.
GigaOm reports that Skyhook Wireless will offer a coordinates plug-in for AOL Instant Messenger later this year: The plug-in will allow people to announce their location using Skyhook's constantly refreshed database of Wi-Fi access points that allows GPS-like precision in urban areas, less so the more rural you go. AIM users with the plug-in will be able to see when buddies are physically nearby and plot their buddies' locations on a map. I assume, as with most presence tools, there will be some level of granularity about how you allow others to see exactly where you are. A stealth mode, putting you at work or Antarctica might be useful for skipping out.
Nokia looks to add location-based features to cell phones: While this is a Wi-Fi blog, I'd be remiss in not noting the coming closer-integration of global positioning satellite (GPS) receivers in a greater variety of equipment, including phones and cameras. (Ricoh and Pentax sell cameras with GPS integration, while Sony offers a GPS-timestamping device that can be synchronized via software later with the pictures you took.) And recall that Skyhook Wireless offers a Wi-Fi-based GPS-like service that could be integrated into mobile phones to work in concrete canyons in which GPS satellites are hard to spot, but cell towers and Wi-Fi transmitters are abundant.
AOL's Mapquest division, internetnews.com reports, released a GPS-based navigation system for mobile phones last April. Flickr, the Yahoo-owned online photo sharing and archiving service, just added geotagging this week, which allows photographs to be labeled with latitude, longitude, and level of map detail, and then clustered on maps.
Skyhook has unveiled a public beta of Loki, its Wi-Fi based location finder: Skyhook sends trucks with Wi-Fi receivers, computers, and GPS devices around major and minor cities in the U.S. all the time. It correlates this data together to allow publicly broadcast Wi-Fi access point signals to provide relatively accurate latitude and longitude locations, akin to GPS without the expense of a GPS receiver nor the poor performance of GPS in urban environments.
Loki is a proof of concept and quite useful. Download the toolbar for Firefox or Internet Explorer (Windows only at present), and you're no longer lost as long as the system can find nearby Wi-Fi signals that it's aware--and it knows about many millions of them. Because their database captures many signals, they can use a combination of network name, unique broadcast information, and signal strength to provide a triangulated (or better) location.
The Loki toolbar offers a popdown of location-based services that you can select from once your location is identified, such as Google Maps (by geographical coordinates) or a hotspot directory by Zip code. Loki prefills the information that it has from your location to the level of granularity that the Web site it connects you to allows or requires. You can also add additional Web site services using an approach that even allows user account logins.
Navizon offers some competition to Skyhook: This new service from Mexens Technology uses a form of peer-to-peer mapping. The seeding must come from people with either cell radios or Wi-Fi built in who also have a GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) receiver. These seeders can upload their information regularly, while all users of the service--currently free--can receive downloads of new locations when they synchronize.
The company also ties into Google Maps via its Web site to show registered users locations that have been mapped. Registration is also free. This is an interesting variation on wardriving which requires enlightened self-interest to succeed: Volunteer enough foothours of mapping and, if others do the same, a city could quickly be well-covered.
Navizon also adds applications, like finding buddies or (soon) tagging information to locations.
The missing piece in reading this Wi-Fi Planet article is whether once a city has a basic level of coverage that someone with just a cell radio or Wi-Fi could add additional points without carrying a GPS. Skyhook extensively pre-maps a location, but the company told me months ago that their software will report back new information to be integrated from software running in the field on users' computers, too.