Skyhook’s MyLoki Bypasses GPS, Makes Location Part of Your Online Persona

For a long time, it looked like the real flowering of location-based services and geo-aware computing would have to wait until more people owned phones with Global Positioning System (GPS) chips inside. And frustratingly for fans of location technology, U.S. manufacturers and cellular carriers have been very slow to a) bring out such phones in the first place, and b) open up their operating systems to developers of third-party applications that use the GPS data. But now a newer technology, Wi-Fi-based positioning, is loosening the logjam—and Boston’s Skyhook Wireless is at the center of the movement. Next week, Skyhook will officially launch its latest product, a WiFi-based location-sharing service that owners of any Wi-Fi-enabled phone or computer can use to automatically update their blog visitors or social-networking pals about their whereabouts.

If that sounds a lot like Buddy Beacon, the friend-finding service from Boston-based uLocate that I wrote about in mid-February, it is. The main difference is that Buddy Beacon only works with GPS-enabled phones, whereas Skyhook’s new service, called MyLoki, will work on almost any laptop or mobile device with a Wi-Fi connection. (Buddy Beacon does have a Web interface, but updating your buddies that way requires you to type in your location manually.)

MyLoki is based on a free piece of software called Loki that you can download to any Windows or Macintosh computer or to any Wi-Fi-capable Windows Mobile or Symbian Series 60 mobile phone. Once it’s running on your device, Loki searches for nearby Wi-Fi signals, compares the IDs of the signals it detects to Skyhook’s global database of Wi-Fi network locations, calculates your position (the more signals it can find, the more accurate its fix), and feeds that information to your Firefox Web browser (sorry, IE users). MyLoki takes it from there, automatically updating people about your location by publishing it to the public my.loki website, your Facebook profile, your blog (via easily embedded text or map widgets), or a personal RSS location feed. (You can check out the MyLoki map widget in action at my personal blog.)

“What we’re doing is very similar to Buddy Beacon, but we’re appealing to a much wider set of devices,” says Ted Morgan, Skyhook’s CEO. “Any device that has Wi-Fi can add Loki and share its location.”

Skyhook originally rolled out Loki as a tool for personalizing Web searches. If you have Loki running in your Firefox toolbar, you can tell it to locate you on a map; then you can consult “channels” linking you to location-based information from other Web pages, such as the Starbucks store locator, Fandango’s local movie listings, or’s local weather reports. Loki will feed your location directly to these external sites, saving you the step of typing in an address, city, or zip code.

MyLoki Map Widget for BlogsMyLoki takes the same location information and makes it part of your online persona—updating your blog, your Facebook profile, or other outlets with your coordinates every 30 minutes. “We think that location adds a whole new element to social networking,” says Morgan. “A lot of what you’re trying to do [on a social network] is represent your real-world relationships online. And a lot of those relationships are generated by your real location. As you move around, that is interesting information that MyLoki can publish to your Facebook news feed, your blog, your website, or even your e-mail signature line. That sparks interactions and allows you to meet new people.”

MyLoki doesn’t work on the Apple iPhone yet. But I would expect the application to arrive on that platform within a matter of months, since Skyhook already provides the Wi-Fi positioning system behind the iPhone’s native Google Maps application, and Apple recently made it easier for outside developers to create third-party applications by releasing a long-promised software development kit.

And as followers of location-based technology will remember, we published a story just two weeks ago about Skyhook’s collaboration with German photo-sharing website Locr, in which Skyhook’s Wi-Fi positioning system will be built into a Locr application that allows automatic geotagging of photographs taken using Wi-Fi-enabled camera phones. That, in turn, will allow users of Locr (and eventually other photo-sharing websites) to browse their own and other people’s photos by geography—one of the most obvious uses of location information, and just the tip of the iceberg. In short, Wi-Fi-based positioning is allowing Web and mobile developers to barrel forward with many long-anticipated applications of location awareness—completely leapfrogging the cellular carriers, who at one time hoped to own the location-based-services business but simply dithered too long.

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

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