The Browser Geolocation Wars: Skyhook’s CEO on Why Google Maps is Misreading Your Location

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the Mozilla Foundation—whose Firefox browser now occupies about 28 percent of the browser market—has now baked the Google geolocation system directly into the 3.5 version of its browser. Considering Firefox’s popularity, that could put pressure on Web developers to write software that favors Google’s system over Skyhook’s. (Skyhook’s technology is built into the Opera browser, Morgan says, and will be included in Apple’s Safari browser upon the release of the new “Snow Leopard” version of Apple’s Mac OS X operating system.)

Morgan suggests that Mozilla went with Google because the search giant provides most of the foundation’s revenue (in the form of fees for placing a Google search box in the browser’s top-level toolbar).

[UPDATE: To explain Mozilla’s decision to use Google’s technology to provide location information for Firefox, Google’s Elaine Filadelfo pointed to two online sources. One was an April 30 blog post by Mozilla engineer Doug Turner, who said three principles—“protecting user privacy,” “enabling web developers to use the API in an unencumbered way that would work in all browsers,” and “preserving user choice”—led to Mozilla’s choice of Google to provide location services for Firefox. The other source was an April 30 TechCrunch article in which Mozilla said that it turned to Google because the two organizations “saw eye-to-eye on privacy issues.”]

As you might expect, Microsoft is also a player in the location wars—its Internet Explorer still has the largest share of the browser market—and it has its own preferences when it comes to determining location. All of which makes life more difficult for a startup like Skyhook.

Morgan says he just wants a chance to compete and demonstrate the high accuracy of Skyhook’s location-finding technology. “Developers really care about good location,” he says. “They shouldn’t be forced to go down one path or the other.” In our interview (transcribed below), we talked about the huge opportunities opening up for businesses and consumers if software makers can get the geolocation formula right. But that’s apparently a process that’s going to play out in the competitive marketplace rather than in the more civilized boardrooms of standards bodies like W3C.

Xconomy: Can you explain the basic similarities and differences between Google’s approach to browser-based location finding and Skyhook’s, and why you say Skyhook’s system produces more accurate locations?

Ted Morgan: There’s a couple reasons why it’s similar. We have known the Google folks for years. Mike [Shean, Skyhook’s co-founder and senior vice president of business development] and I were just joking yesterday about how when we first built Loki, it was built as a prototype to show Google exactly what they just launched yesterday: a button on Google Maps that would show you where you are. We worked together [with Google] on the Apple deployment [Google Maps on the iPhone]. But the systems are built very differently. There are really two major differences. One is the data, and two is the fundamental algorithms that capture your location.

On the data side, we’ve been doing it a lot longer and taking a very different approach. What the Google folks do is something they call crowdsourcing the data—trying to collect [the locations and IDs of Wi-Fi access points] off of all the Android phones and Google apps running on Blackberrys and other devices. Which is an easy way to grab the data, but unfortunately you get very low-quality data, and it’s susceptible to being spotty around cities, and to being hit by data viruses—you can get bad data in the system and there’s no way to know, and it ripples through the system. That’s how we started the company five or six years ago [i.e., using crowdsourced data], and we found that that model doesn’t work. So we physically drive the streets by hand, so we can ensure that every nook and cranny has been covered.

We also have complete control over the quality of the data, so that we know that this person was on this street corner when they scanned a particular access point. We get broad coverage across the United States and Europe and Asia, so that wherever you go, you know that the system has the same level of coverage. Whereas with Google’s system you might get great coverage in Manhattan, but if you go out to Newton, MA, you get nothing. That is a hard thing to communicate to users—that it will work great in some areas but crappy in others.

The algorithms side is the hardest part. Collecting the data is a physical exercise, but being able to build the algorithms to not only triangulate your position well, but also detect change, is the most important thing. These access points move all the time, and being able to reconstruct when they have moved, and where they have moved to, and which ones you’re confident in and which ones you’re not, is a very complicated experience and it’s something we’ve spent a lot of time building. The Google system will tell you that you’re in Phoenix when you’re actually in Boston not because the triangulation is wrong, but … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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16 responses to “The Browser Geolocation Wars: Skyhook’s CEO on Why Google Maps is Misreading Your Location”

  1. anon says:

    I am not in the slightest interested in a website being able to determine where I am, and along with the horrendous URL bar, FF3 is not something I will be running.

    The IE using crowd will be fawning over these kind of things, but anyone who was attracted to FF by its initial philosophy is now pretty sick of FF and the way it has gone.

    Edit: spreading articles over multiple pages just to stick more adverts in visitors faces is not friendly, and will ultimately mean users will just block adverts, killing your revenue totally.

  2. Marco says:

    @anon 2:48pm

    Noted. By the way, there’s a nice new Italian restaurant just two blocks south from your current location.

  3. Dennis says:

    How in the world could anon have turned this into some sort of anti-FF screed?

  4. My personal experience with skyhooks was that the technology was unable to live up to the claims of the marketware. No idea if Google is going to be able to do a better job, but competition is almost always a good thing.

  5. Epicanis says:

    “taps into a computer’s wifi chip”, “proprietary database”…While I’d have no objection to the company offering an addon, I’m glad this proprietary service wasn’t installed by default as it was in early test releases of Firefox’s geolocation API.

    It still boggles my mind that there’s no “manual entry” option for this, though. You’d think a simple “enter your latitude and longitude” dialog would have been the first thing put in just to test the geolocation API when it was originally being developed.

  6. personne says:

    I’m not impressed by Skyhook’s position. Covering “the United States, Europe and Asia” (hi from Canada!) using drivers in cars seems silly, if they’re not doing an alliance with an international shipping company at least. Correlated crowdsourcing is the better idea, and much more internet (non proprietary, many individuals involved rather than one company) in nature. Ultimately both methods are prone to errors, gaps, and spoofing.

  7. jobbe says:

    What is described is not “triangulation”. Possibly “trilateration” is used, at least in the binary sense of being in or out of range of a (set of) WiFi access points.

    I would think that the Google camera cars for Street View are doing exactly what Skyhook sys should be done, obtaining quality readings by driving own logging cars down every street. Surely Google did not miss the opportunity to add WiFi logging to the camera cars?

    The qualiaty data obtained from the camera cars can also be used to assess the reliability of any mobile device taking part in the crowd-sourcing of locations not yet covered by the Steet View cars. Seems a good approach to me.