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Skyhook's love/hate relationship with GPS

CEO of the geolocation company says Wi-Fi is what you need to get your bearings fast, but GPS has a few uses too.

After I heard that Skyhook Wireless was announcing a deal that would put its geolocation technology into a line of Dell Netbooks, I talked with the company's CEO, Ted Morgan. I'd last talked to Morgan three years ago when he pitched me on the merits of Wi-Fi over traditional satellite GPS location-finding technologies. Ironically, the Dell deal puts Skyhook technology only in those Netbooks ordered with the optional GPS hardware in them, even though all Netbooks have Wi-Fi. But as Morgan described it to me, the best real-world solution for geolocation today is a combination of GPS and Wi-Fi.

Below, more observations on location technologies from the CEO of Skyhook.

With more devices getting GPS satellite radios, isn't Skyhook's Wi-Fi-based business in danger? When I asked Morgan about this, he said, in fact, that it's the opposite. Wi-Fi, he says, is the critical geolocaton technology for devices like the iPhone. Two-thirds to three-quarters of the time, he says, when the iPhone locates itself, it's doing so using the Skyhook Wi-Fi geolocation software built in to the phone, and not GPS.

There are several challenges with GPS, according to Morgan. As most everyone knows, it doesn't work indoors. It's also slow, even when it does work. "Time to fix" for a device that's been powered off is 30 seconds at best, and for instant-on, quick-grab apps like you have on a smartphone or Netbook, that's just too slow. Furthermore, the bigger the screen of a device, the worse the GPS reception gets. Morgan says, "The bigger screens drown out the GPS signals." Although when I pressed him as to why, and he claimed to not be technical enough to fully understand it. Dedicated GPS devices, like dash-top navigators, also have antenna devoted to GPS, but phones in particular give priority to telephone communications and short-change their GPS antenna designs.

Of course, when you're out of Wi-Fi range or moving fast (driving), or have a device that is continuously powered-up, GPS works well. That's what it was designed for. But in many other use cases, you can't get a good fix with GPS technology.

How do you maintain a geo-database of Wi-Fi hot spots, especially when more and more of them are now behind security passwords? As before, Morgan says, Skyhook employees and contractors "wardrive" down millions of miles of roads to correlate location (from GPS) with the signatures of Wi-Fi access points. Morgan said that Wi-Fi beacons are unique even when security is turned on, so that's not a factor.

Another way that Skyhook keeps its data current is by using the information it gleans from Skyhook users. That's right: When your iPhone geolocates itself it also sends Wi-Fi beacon data back to Skyhook, which helps keep the system's location database current.

Dell Netbooks with Skyhook software will tell what's going on around you (but so will any geo-aware browser, like Firefox 3.5). Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET

So Wi-Fi and GPS are complementary? Yes, Morgan says. A lot of the current geolocation systems are "hybrid." He says Skyhook has "tons of patents" based on blending data from Wi-Fi, GPS, and cell tower signals to determine location. For example, he says that Skyhook can use data from only two GPS satellites (traditional GPS-only systems need contact with four) to geolocate, if the device is also able to correlate with nearby Wi-Fi signals.

Why so expensive? I repeated my complaint to Morgan about the ridiculous $9.99 a month price that AT&T was charging for turn-by-turn directions on the iPhone now, and he agreed that it was too high. "The thing to watch is what TomTom prices at," he said, when it comes out with its turn-by-turn iPhone software. Morgan agreed that GPS services are priced too high right now, but he says it's because the mapping companies are charging developers and manufacturers too much for their data. TomTom, he says, could break the price barrier if it releases a fairly priced iPhone navigation app.

Regarding Firefox, which uses Google's geolocation technology, not Skyhook's. Mozilla built Skyhook technology into earlier builds of Firefox 3.5, but it eventually shifted to Google's location-finding technology. Morgan says, "It was a bummer for us, but it's really too bad for Firefox users since it's not as good." He sees Firefox as being strongly attached to Google, so it wasn't a surprising move. And, he says, at least the browsers are all zeroing in on the same standard for communicating location data, even if their underlying geolocating technologies may vary.

When are we going to get geolocation as a standard feature in cameras? Skyhook put Wi-Fi geolocation in an EyeFi card, but the technology hasn't made it into more than a few experimental camera models yet. "The camera guys have the longest product cycles," Morgan says." They're like the old automakers." Also, he says the power drain of Wi-Fi and the time-to-fix issues make it hard to get accurate location data and attach it to photos. He speculates that maybe in 2010 we'll see more location-award digital cameras.

Do we need location clearinghouses, like Yahoo Fire Eagle and Google Latitude? Morgan thinks it's too early, and that the search companies are not the right ones to push these services. "There has to be multiple places you want to send your data before you need a gateway, and these guys built the gateways first." And he said he'd look rather to Apple, Nokia, and RIM to make these services work. "If you own the device," Morgan says, "you own the user."