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

3/12/08Follow @wroush

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 Weather.com’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 Xconomy's chief correspondent and editor of Xconomy San Francisco. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com. Follow @wroush

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  • duke

    Interesting… With mobile broadband coming to age and technologies like WiMax soon to be available, it is not difficult to predict that the future doesn’t look promissing for wi-fi. It is peaking now but in a few years it’ll likely become the thing of the past. It is understandable that Skyhook has to quickly use the momentum and try to become consumer oriented web20 company while there is still time. Not an easy shift in a crowded consumer space…

  • Jim

    Duke, the long-held promise of WiMax and other mobile wireless doesn’t mean WiFi is going away. With 10′s of millions of access points and dropping costs of broadband, it’s unlikely to disappear in the next 10 years. MP3s have been available for more than a decade; anyone still have a CD player? DVDs are also more than 10 years old, anyone got VHS? A 1/3 of Massachusetts still lacks broadband; we’re just at the beginning of services like these.

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  • Duke

    Jim, I think that your post proves my previous point. WiFi is the technology of the past. It will still be around as you noted (like CD and VHS), but is not something companies should bet their future on (who is betting on VHS or dial-up today?). We live in internet time, so it may not take 10 years for shift from WiFi to be made, nevertheless it is inevitable. I think that Skyhook move is pretty much under the gun and they have to use the momentum they got with Apple. Otherwise VHS like future is possible, but is not fun, right?

    http://www.networkworld.com/news/2008/031008-ericsson-predicts-demise-for.html

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/wroush/ Wade Roush

    Personally, I have to agree with Jim on this one. Duke, it would be nice if WiMax and other forms of wireless broadband were being rolled out in the U.S. as quickly as this seems to be happening in Europe (cf. the Network World article you link to). But if anything is clear from watching the U.S. wireless industry, it’s that NOTHING happens quickly. 3G remains a sadly distant dream. Look how Sprint’s stockholders punished the company for having the audacity to get out in front on WiMax. In most places, WiFi is going to be the only wireless broadband game in town for the next few years, which is the critical period for adoption of location based services.

  • http://ampersanddot.com/blog Zach

    Sorry Duke, I have to go against you as well.

    Wifi is still very much on its way up, regardless of how long it has been around. More and more cities are planning region wide wifi- and Wade is absolutely correct in that 3G is still (somehow) a distant dream. But I’d like to argue that Sprint is tanking, not because they had the audacity to back WiMax, but because they’ve been completely incapable of delivering it to the market.

    WiMax has been continually promised for “Late Next Year”, while at the same time Wifi hotspots are jumping up all over the city. Plus, 3G networks are relatively weak compared to the data transfer possible with Wifi. And considering how few places in the US have full 3G networks… it will be ages before there is a suitable alternative to Wifi (which I argue won’t be Wimax anyway… 700mhz roll-out?)

    And not that I agree with this argument, but remember: isn’t this is why the iPhone has wifi but no 3G?

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