Google's Gears gives laptops location smarts

Browsers and Web applications now can get geographic smarts from an update to the Google Gears technology. Wi-Fi networks give a rough position fix.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
Expertise Processors, semiconductors, web browsers, quantum computing, supercomputers, AI, 3D printing, drones, computer science, physics, programming, materials science, USB, UWB, Android, digital photography, science. Credentials
  • Shankland covered the tech industry for more than 25 years and was a science writer for five years before that. He has deep expertise in microprocessors, digital photography, computer hardware and software, internet standards, web technology, and more.
Stephen Shankland
2 min read

Google has updated its open-source Gears project so Web sites can take advantage of location services in Gears-enabled Web browsers.

The underlying technology, which used signals from cell phone towers, was initially developed so mobile-phone users could get a rough fix on their location, even without GPS technology. Now, though, Gears has been augmented with location smarts based on signals from Wi-Fi networks so that people with laptops also can figure out their location to within about 200 meters in many major cities.

That means that a Web site that might benefit from showing a person's location--most anything mapping-related, for example--can be personalized better, as long as there are wireless network signals around. Google uses Gears to try to advance the Web application state of the art, but only a small fraction of users have it installed.

Also, programmers don't need to know which underlying mechanism provides the service. "Because the Geolocation API is the same for developers in both desktop and mobile browsers, you can even use the same code on both platforms," Charles Wiles, product manager of the Google mobile team, said in the Google Code Blog post Tuesday.

Gears is an extension that augments the ability of Firefox, Microsoft Internet Explorer, Google Chrome, and Apple Safari. But it's not the only way to get geographic information into a browser.

Two weeks ago, Mozilla released a Firefox plug-in called Geode that uses a similar Wi-Fi technology, from Skyhook Wireless, to give a user's location. That service is being built into Firefox 3.1, too, and will eventually be able to use other methods, including GPS or presumably Gears, to retrieve location information.

Sharing one's location information with Web sites, of course, raises privacy concerns, but as with Mozilla's Firefox extension, those sites must obtain explicit information.

"Gears will always tell a user when your site wants to access their location for the first time, and the user can either allow or deny your site permission," Wiles said.

Update 12:33 p.m. PDT: The Wi-Fi location feature also is now built into the BlackBerry version of Google Maps for Mobile, according to Google's Mobile blog.

"The premise is similar to what we do with cell tower information: information transmitted by nearby Wi-Fi access points is used to pinpoint your location," said Adel Youssef and Arunesh Mishra, programmers for Google mobile. "Since the range of a Wi-Fi access point is smaller than that of a cell phone tower, this often results in a much more accurate position."