Steve Jobs Sprinkles a Bit of Magic Apple Dust on Boston’s Skyhook

1/17/08Follow @wroush

“It’s probably the biggest publicity event any company can have,” says Ted Morgan.

Is the CEO of Boston-based Skyhook Wireless talking about running a Superbowl ad? Being endorsed by Oprah, perhaps? Or maybe ringing the opening bell on the New York Stock Exchange?

No. He’s talking about getting a mention from Steve Jobs in the Apple CEO’s annual Macworld keynote speech in San Francisco, which, in what’s shaping up as the iCentury, is the most-anticipated, most-watched, most-discussed technology event of the year. And on Tuesday, fortune smiled on Skyhook.

“You can count on one hand how many other company logos Steve Jobs puts up on the screen behind him,” says Morgan. “It’s usually Google and Intel. To have Skyhook up there is just enormous.”

Skyhook, if you somehow missed the news, is the company providing the technology behind the new Wi-Fi-based location-finding feature of the iPhone’s map application. Millions of Apple customers have been trying out the new feature thanks to a major iPhone software upgrade, made available shortly after Jobs’ speech Tuesday. (A similar upgrade for the iPod Touch brought it the mapping application, including the location-finding feature, for the first time—essentially completing its evolution into an iPhone without the phone.)

Morgan was still sounding giddy when I reached him last night in San Francisco. “It’s actually a breakthrough period for the whole business of location-based services,” he says. “We’ve all been talking about it for years, but to have Apple saying that it’s important, well, that’s big.”

Skyhook Wireless LogoDespite its lofty name, Skyhook, founded by Morgan and partner Michael Shean in 2003, has built its business on a firmly terrestrial phenomenon: the spread of Wi-Fi access points (also called routers) across the urban landscape. Stand in any given location in most major metropolitan areas in the United States, says Morgan, and it is possible to detect an average of 8 to 9 access points. In a few techno-saturated urban centers like downtown Boston, San Francisco, and Manhattan, that number is as high as 30 or 40. Since access points tend to stay in one place, and since each one continually broadcasts a unique digital ID that can be picked up by any passing Wi-Fi device, it would theoretically be possible to pinpoint one’s location to within about 30 meters, simply by measuring the strengths of every nearby Wi-Fi hotspot and comparing their IDs against a sufficiently thorough database of access-point locations.

Actually, strike the “theoretically.” This is exactly how Skyhook’s system works. To develop its Wi-Fi Positioning System or WPS (a name that deliberately echoes the satellite-based Global Positioning System, or GPS), Skyhook spent … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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