Skyhook Wireless Digs In, Touts Location Patents After Apple Drops Technology From iPhone

When it comes to mobile software and devices these days, it’s all about location, location, location. And if you’re a small, leading-edge company in the sector—if you’ve played a pioneering role in bringing location-based technologies to market, and millions of devices use your software—well, you’d better watch your back.

That’s my take upon hearing the latest news from Boston-based Skyhook Wireless, the geo-location software firm. Yesterday, after a tumultuous few days in which the company acknowledged that Apple is no longer using Skyhook’s location-aware software in its new iPhones (since April) or the iPad, Skyhook announced it has been granted four new U.S. patents in Wi-Fi location and positioning technology.

It’s an interesting juxtaposition of events. On one hand, Apple is one of Skyhook’s biggest and most prominent customers. When Steve Jobs announced on stage at MacWorld in January 2008 that Skyhook’s technology would be part of a big iPhone software upgrade, Skyhook founder and CEO Ted Morgan called it “probably the biggest publicity event any company can have.” So it’s surely a serious blow to be dropped from these hot new devices. Apple apparently has its own Wi-Fi location information, presumably culled from the daily movements of iPhones around the country, that it thinks is good enough for its own devices. On the other hand, Skyhook is projecting confidence in its core technologies and, in any case, seems to be digging in for a fight to supply these technologies to more and more mobile manufacturers.

Following various media reports from TechCrunch (which first reported on the Apple and Skyhook angle last week), the Wall Street Journal, and other media outlets, I wanted to hear what Skyhook had to say about the current situation, and about the evolving competition in location-based services—and how it affects Skyhook’s strategy. (All of this originally came about in response to a query about privacy made to Apple from a pair of U.S. congressmen, one from Massachusetts.)

First, some more background. Skyhook has been a darling of the Boston-area mobile software scene for a few years now. Its software determines a mobile device’s precise location based on the identities and locations of nearby Wi-Fi networks, and information from GPS satellites and cellular networks. The core technology is deployed on mobile devices made by Samsung, Motorola (Android phones), Dell, Qualcomm, and Texas Instruments, among others—including Apple’s iPhone and iPod Touch from 2008 until just this spring.

Meanwhile, Skyhook’s intellectual property—which now comprises 15 granted patents and 37 pending applications—falls into three main categories: building a Wi-Fi database for location, maintaining that data (which is challenging because Wi-Fi access points move around), and ensuring the highest accuracy possible through proprietary algorithms.

“We were the first ones to do all this,” says Skyhook’s Morgan. “The downside of being early is you have to wait seven years for stuff to come to market.”

And, as many tech pioneers have found out the hard way, being early isn’t necessarily … Next Page »

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