By Troy Dreier
January 23, 2008
GPS devices are hot items, but could Wi-Fi be the real future of navigation? Skyhook Wireless, which powers iPhone Maps, is leading the way.
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If you were watching the keynote address from last week’s Macworld Conference and Expo, you saw Apple CEO Steve Jobs unveil software for the iPhone and iPod touch that lets users pinpoint their location with Google Maps. But the software doesn’t depend on GPS, it depends on Wi-Fi.
To create this amazing app, Apple licensed technology from Skyhook Wireless, a Boston-based company that’s mapping the world’s Wi-Fi networks. The iPhone and iPod touch software works by measuring the strength of nearby Wi-Fi networks.
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Mapping the world Skyhook was founded five years ago by Ted Morgan (below) and Mike Shean, who had the idea to map first the nation’s and then the world’s Wi-Fi networks. After securing $17 million in venture capital, they sent out a fleet of vans to drive the streets of every metropolitan area. Vans were equipped with proprietary technology that recorded Wi-Fi network strength and relayed that information to the Boston headquarters.
Skyhook has now finished its U.S., Canada, and Australia mapping goal of measuring the areas where 70 percent of the population lives, and currently has drivers working to improve the company’s European and Asian maps. Skyhook has 275 employees, 240 of whom are drivers recording Wi-Fi signals.
Do the math Measuring Wi-Fi and determining position isn’t simply a matter of graphing signal strength. Getting usable information means relying on complex algorithms that calculate factors, such as how signals change when bounced off objects. For help in creating the algorithms, Morgan turned to Dr. Kaveh Pahlavan of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, in Worcester, Massachusetts, an expert in using positioning algorithms for indoor geolocation.
This extension of Pahlavan’s work applied the information to outdoor signals, something that hadn’t been done previously. Skyhook filed for 25 patents based on Pahlavan’s findings. Apple wasn’t the first company to take advantage of Skyhook’s Wi-Fi location software. AOL uses it in AOL Instant Messenger, allowing users to see where their chat buddies are located, and SiRF Technology integrates it into some GPS chips. Skyhook also offers software downloads from it’s consumer site, Loki.com, that use the technology.
The Apple application Apple’s user interface works by showing a circle around your location on a map. If the software is sure of your location, the circle is small; when it has less confidence, such as in rural areas, the circle expands. The Apple software can do more than just pinpoint your location, however: it also offers text-based driving directions, called step-through navigation, such as you can get online from Google Maps. It doesn’t offer live GPS-style navigation, called turn-by-turn navigation, but Morgan says that’s due to licensing restrictions, not Skyhook’s Wi-Fi software.
Only two companies in the world have the maps necessary for turn-by-turn navigation, TeleAtlas and NavTech. “They charge a lot of money for turn-by-turn navigation,” Morgan says. “Generally, that’s the most expensive thing in any navigation product, more expensive than any piece of hardware.”
Consumers have shown a strong demand for location-based services, including GPS navigators and cell phone services, and Skyhook’s technology should find a lot of new takers. “We think location is going to be a key element to all mobile devices over the next few years: phones, laptops, gaming devices, everything,” says Morgan. “You’re going to expect anything you carry around with you to know where it is.”
Troy is a regular contributor to Web Video Universe, PDA Street, Intranet Journal, and Laptop Magazine. He also writes a weekly consumer technology column, which is published in the Jersey Journal newspaper and distributed by the Newhouse News Service. His first book, CNET Do-It-Yourself Home Video Projects: 24 Cool Things You Didn’t Know You Could Do, was published by McGraw-Hill in August.