Motorola to Put Skyhook’s Location Technology into Android Phones, Bypassing Google

4/27/10Follow @wroush

For Google, it’s been a good news/bad news week. The good news is that the search leader’s open-source Android mobile operating system is catching on fast, with more manufacturers and carriers selling Android-equipped phones and more consumers buying them. The bad news is the story isn’t playing out exactly the way Google planned.

Yesterday the UK’s Vodafone announced that its UK customers will be able to buy Google’s Nexus One Android phone only in Vodafone retail stores, rather than through the Web store Google set up specifically for that purpose. And Google revealed that Verizon, the largest U.S. wireless carrier, won’t be selling the Nexus One at all, and is going instead with HTC’s Droid Incredible.

Today comes another change: Motorola is announcing that its own Android phones, such as the Droid and Cliq, will bypass the free location finding system that Google built into Android and use software from Boston-based Skyhook Wireless instead.

That’s a big win for Skyhook, adding a notch to a belt that already includes Apple’s iPhones and iPad line, Dell notebook computers, and mobile devices from Texas Instruments, Qualcomm, and other manufacturers. It’s also testimony to the open nature of the Android ecosystem, which—in contrast to the iPhone OS—was designed so that manufacturers and developers can swap out pieces of the operating system, such as the location-finding system, if they feel like it. And if, as Skyhook and many mobile developers argue, Motorola’s switch results in more accurate location readings for mobile users, then the move will ultimately benefit consumers as well.

Nonetheless, there’s reason to believe that Google is unhappy about Motorola’s decision. After all, there’s much more at stake than just bragging rights about whose location-finding system is installed in millions of smartphones. If Motorola phones use Skyook’s hybrid GPS-, cellular-, and Wi-Fi-based system to find their locations rather than Google’s own similar technology, it means vast amounts of data about the locations and travel habits of mobile users will go into Skyhook’s databases instead of Google’s. And location data, in the coming era of targeted advertising and location-based search and mobile commerce, will be one of the hottest commodities around.

Motorola is the first phone maker to add Skyhook’s location system to an Android phone. Ted Morgan, Skyhook’s founder and CEO, says Skyhook won Motorola’s business because it was able to persuade the Illinois-based mobile giant that its positioning system—which works in part by measuring signals strengths from nearby Wi-Fi networks and checking in with Skyhook’s continuously updated database of Wi-Fi network locations around the world—is more accurate than Google’s.

“We do side-by-side field tests all over the world and show that in a daily user’s life, this will perform much better,” says Morgan. “Every time you check in on Foursquare, it’s going to pick the right bar; every time you drive, it will pick the right road.”

It also helped, Morgan says, that Skyhook has direct relationships with scores of mobile-software developers who have built location-related apps for the iPhone platform and who say they want Skyhook’s system on Android devices.

“We decided to add Skyhook location to the ‘Movies’ Android App when we realized that it improved our accuracy over the native Android APIs,” said Joe Greenstein, co-founder and CEO of Flixster, in a statement prepared by Skyhook. APIs, or application programming interfaces, define the way different components of an operating system talk to each other; San Francisco-based Flixster has quite a bit of experience dealing with them, as its movie-search service is available on … Next Page »

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

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