Mozilla Adapts Skyhook’s Loki Location-Finding System for Firefox

10/8/08Follow @wroush

When you open the Google Maps application on the Apple iPhone and click the “target” button, the device pulls up a local map and shows your current position as a blue dot. You could easily do the same thing on your laptop—if, that is, your Web browser could communicate with a location-sensing device in your computer, such as its Wi-Fi chip.

And soon it will. Mozilla, the Mountain View, CA-based organization behind the Firefox browser, revealed yesterday that future versions of Firefox will be location-aware—meaning they’ll have built-in software that taps into a computer’s Wi-Fi chip or other wireless sensors, figures out the machine’s current latitude and longitude, and feeds that information (with the user’s consent) to any website that requests it. And to test the idea, Mozilla released an experimental Firefox plugin called Geode that does exactly that, using the Loki location-finding system developed by Boston’s Skyhook Wireless. Skyhook says the Mozilla deal could foreshadow a time when Loki is built into all browsers.

Loki, which determines a machine’s location by comparing the IDs of nearby Wi-Fi access points to Skyhook’s national database of Wi-Fi networks, was already available as a free download for Firefox and Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser. For Geode, according to Skyhook co-founder and vice president of business development Mike Shean, the company made some minor tweaks to comply with the World Wide Web Consortium’s draft geolocation specification and to add privacy-protection features requested by Mozilla. Loki also comes with a toolbar and a logo, whereas Geode, once installed, runs invisibly. But “under the covers it’s the same system,” Shean says.

Shean said talks between Skyhook and Mozilla began shortly after last January’s announcement of the deal between Skyhook and Apple that put Skyhook’s proprietary Wi-Fi Positioning System on the iPhone. “Since the launch of the iPhone and the ability that Apple has given to developers to leverage location, the market around location-based services has been on a pretty aggressive upswing, and that has also manifested itself in the browser world,” Shean says. “The browser folks and the laptop folks are looking at ways to incorporate location into what they do, and that’s the reason that Mozilla approached us—because we obviously are the only ones really offering Wi-Fi-based location in the Web world for laptops and other Wi-Fi devices.”

Geode Food Finder applicationIn its blog, Mozilla Labs, the organization’s R&D wing, said yesterday that Geode is intended to give Web developers an opportunity to experiment with “location-aware experiences” ahead of the official implementation of geolocation capabilities in Firefox 3.1, which is expected to be released in beta form later this year. So far, there are only three examples of websites that grab location information from Geode: a “Food Finder” page, developed by Mozilla Labs’ head of user experience Aza Raskin, that plots a user’s location on a Google map and shows nearby eateries; Fire Eagle, a Yahoo service that acts as a central registry for users’ locations; and the Pownce file-sharing/social-networking service, which can show members’ locations on their profiles by checking in with Geode or Fire Eagle.

But more examples are on the way, according to Shean. “We’re working with literally dozens of content providers and other companies that use maps,” he says. “Over the next several weeks you’ll see a whole slew of different websites rolling out with this technology.”

And in the long run, Skyhook would like to see the Loki technology built into all Web browsers, Shean says: “We’re very pleased to see Mozilla leading the way around location in the browser, but we are actually working with all of the browser providers to discuss opportunities to bundle our technology into their software.”

Update 10/8/08 2:00 pm: I just learned of another website using Geode for location-based customization: Outside.in Radar, a section of Brooklyn, NY-based hyperlocal news site Outside.in where users can see news, discussions, and alerts specific to their location.

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

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