Skyhook Wireless Working to Make More Mobile Apps Location-Aware

4/1/10Follow @wroush

Executives at Boston’s Skyhook Wireless, which supplies the GPS- and Wi-Fi-based location-finding technology used by dozens of mobile device makers, are convinced that mobile app developers have only begun to explore the uses of location data. To help that process along, they’re about to introduce a software toolkit called “Local Faves” intended to help iPhone app developers add location-based elements where you might not expect them, such as in music, wine, food, or reference apps.

“There are lots of apps that use location already—it’s about 12 percent of the apps in the iTunes App Store—but they are the apps that you would expect, like navigation, travel, weather, news, and social networking check-in apps,” says Kate Imbach, Skyhook’s vice president of marketing. “But we’ve started seeing a lot of interest from developers of apps that aren’t really by nature location-based. We’d talk to the makers of a cooking app and they’d want to be able to add location tags so that users can see the most popular recipes in their area.”

Local Faves ScreenshotLocal Faves—which is really just a few lines of code that developers can embed in their apps—will make it easy to add location functionality, Imbach says. “It could be a bird-watching app that lets you say ‘I saw this bird here,’ or a wine app that lets you say ‘I drank this wine here,’” she says. “Any digital content gets more interesting if you can talk about where you are when you’re accessing it.”

Skyhook announced Local Faves this morning at O’Reilly Media’s Where 2.0 conference in San Jose, CA, and plans to release it by mid-April. Where 2.0, launched in 2005, is the country’s largest tech gathering focused on location-based services, which are especially hot this year with the spread of location-aware smartphones and apps that exploit location information, such as Yelp and Foursquare.

The Local Faves code pulls latitude and longitude data from iPhone’s core software, and makes it easier for app developers to use that information. For example, an app incorporating Local Faves might allow users to broadcast their location to social networking services, or tag a piece of information with a location. Those are tricks that developers of navigation- or social-networking-related apps mastered long ago, but they aren’t as familiar to makers of apps where location isn’t core to the experience, Imbach says.

Green Mountan Digital in Woodstock, VT, for example, plans to use Local Faves to improve its Audobon Guide series of iPhone apps, which provide photographic catalogues of bird, insect, mammal, reptile, fish, and plant species. Users of the apps can already log sightings by location, but a forthcoming version of the app will also show them what species nearby users have spotted. “These features will help Audubon Guides accomplish its ultimate goal, which is to promote the appreciation of the nature around us, by encouraging our app users to share their experiences with others,” Green Mountain Digital CEO David Roberts said in a press statement.

Drync, a Cambridge, MA, startup whose iPhone apps help wine drinkers research their purchases, is also using Local Faves to build location-aware versions of its free and premium applications. The added features, due in April, will let users record and share where they bought or drank a particular bottle of wine, and search on a map to see who’s drinking what and where. “We’ve always envisioned adding social features and geolocation—to enable users to see where their friends are dining, for example—and Skyhook just did a bunch of this work for us and handed it over, which is great,” says Brad Rosen, Drync’s founder and CEO. “Could we have gone and built it? Absolutely, but realistically it would have taken us six person-months.”

So what’s in it for Skyhook, which—after all—makes most of its money licensing XPS, its hybrid positioning software for the iPhone 3G and 3GS? For extremely heavy users of Local Faves, the company will earn a licensing fee—-but that doesn’t kick in until the users of a company’s apps tap the location features more than 100,000 times per month. The software tools are really about getting developers and consumers to make more frequent use of location information.

“Everyone understands at this point that location makes a lot of sense for social networking and navigation, but it has a lot more use cases,” says Imbach. “The more location is used beyond how we currently understand it, the more exciting stuff we can do with it, and the more Skyhook can be at the center of it.”

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

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  • Wade Roush

    As a quick addendum to this story: Dan Katcher of Rocket Farm Studios, a local mobile app development house, sent me the following comments.

    “We recently evaluated Local Faves and think it can add a lot of value both to our own apps and our client apps. One example is for a project we’re working on in the hotel space. We can see Local Faves providing tremendous functionality for hotel guests using the app to learn what’s hot in terms of restaurants and things to do, get reviews/ratings, and through their what they want to do while staying at the hotel.

    “From a technology perspective we can move much faster and more efficiently because we no longer have to worry about how to host and manage locality-based data.

    “And from the user’s point of view, this set of features will allow us to keep the user within the app and still have access and the ability to socialize this information. It’s a big win for us in terms of getting, community-based features into the app fast.

    “We can also see applying Local Faves to a number of projects we’re developing internally for the same reasons.”