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 iPhones, Android phones, and BlackBerry and Palm devices. “Adding Skyhook into their Android platform is a great move from Motorola, and puts them ahead of the curve,” Greenstein said.

[Update: This paragraph and the next added 12:45 p.m., April 27, 2010] Carter Jernigan, a Cambridge, MA-based mobile developer who created a popular Android app called Locale that already uses Skyhook’s technology, says the Skyhook-Motorola announcement is “exciting” for Android developers and consumers alike.

“This announcement highlights the open nature of Android, where handset manufacturers can integrate better solutions, such as Skyhook, directly into their Android handsets,” says Jernigan. “Locale is a dynamic settings manager that can do things like turning off your ringer based on location. Having fast, accurate, and low-power location APIs is extremely important, since Locale is always running in the background. Thanks to our partnership with Skyhook and my own proprietary technology, the most recent Locale 1.1.1 update reduces battery usage to practically zero. Is Skyhook the best solution for exciting location-aware apps like Locale? Absolutely yes.”

Google’s own location-finding system works essentially the same way as Skyhook’s. But the venture-funded Boston startup, whose drivers have spent seven years criss-crossing millions of miles of roads in North America, Europe, and Asia gauging Wi-Fi signals, has a big head start. Morgan also argues that the algorithms Skyhook’s software uses to triangulate a device’s position based on the strengths of nearby Wi-Fi networks are more accurate than Google’s.

“When you combine better reference data with better algorithms, we outperform them,” says Morgan. “Having said that, they offer theirs for free.”

To convince Motorola to pay for location data—Skyhook licenses its system on a per-handset basis—the company had to show that its system would make the company’s smartphones far more useful when users are checking maps or using location-aware apps.

“They want their phones to be the best Android phones, and they are looking to pick the best-in-class components and services to do that,” says Morgan.

The beauty of Android, compared to closed and proprietary operating systems like Apple’s, is that its APIs are public, which makes it easy for Motorola or other handset makers to program their phones to tap Skyhook’s system every time another application on the phone needs latitude and longitude data.

Skyhook Wireless SpotRank heat map of Boston on Marathon DayBut now Google seems to be paying a price for that openness. Last month, Skyhook introduced a service called SpotRank, an anonymized historical database of the locations of the mobile phone users who have tapped Skyhook’s database for a location fix. Skyhook processes hundreds of millions of such location “lookups” daily, giving it a very accurate picture of where people are when they’re using location-related apps. The company used SpotRank to map the massive influx of smartphone-toting marathon spectators in Boston last week, for example.

That’s information that Google and other companies would dearly like to have, since it could help publishers and retailers tailor search-related advertising and other services based on users’ locations. But SpotRank diverts the information to entities who wish to license it from Skyhook, such as Boulder, CO-based SimpleGeo, which makes geolocation tools for mobile developers.

Indeed, the name “SpotRank” seems almost deliberately calculated to tweak Google’s sensibilities, echoing, as it does, the PageRank algorithm behind Google Web searches. But a Skyhook press release about the Motorola deal doesn’t even mention Google.

“Motorola is committed to providing rich location services for our customers and developer partners,” Christy Wyatt, corporate vice president of software and services product management for Motorola Mobile Devices, said in the release. “Precise location is central to the mobile experience, and Skyhook’s Core Location will enhance Motorola’s Android-based mobile devices with its innovative location technology.” Motorola expects to ship phones equipped with the Skyhook software later this year.

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

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