Laws, sausages and browser geolocation

July 6, 2011 | 7 comments

Compass InlayI was emailed a question about the browser geolocation test I wrote a while back, and I thought I’d respond to it here. If you haven’t seen it, go check it out, and come back.

If you’re not prepared for it, it’s a creepy little feature. How on earth is browser-based geolocation so accurate? Desktops and laptops mostly don’t contain GPS devices, and IP addresses shouldn’t be enough to pin your location down quite so well.

The answer is also more than a little bit unsettling. There are two main companies who provide software-only location services: Skyhook and Google. Here’s an excerpt from Skyhook’s “how it works” page:

To quickly and reliably arrive at accurate location results, the Core Engine collect raw data from Wi-Fi access points, GPS satellites and cell towers with advanced hybrid positioning algorithms. By leveraging the strengths of more than one underlying position technology, Skyhook’s Core Engine provides the best possible location available in any environment.

In other words, they check your GPS equipment, where that exists, and fall back to checking your environment against a complicated database of wireless access points correlated to location.

These databases are hugely strategically important on the application web. You may remember that Google was forced to stop collecting this information with their Street View vans in Germany. At the time, they claimed it was an accident, but Google is actively preventing Android handset manufacturers for incorporating Skyhook technology for data collection reasons. Check out this detail from the lawsuit between Skyhook and Google:

At 10:46 Google’s Mike Chu had replied, saying ” I think we need to understand how much better Skyhook actually is.”

At 2:36 Google’s Zhengrong Ji replied and said “It’s sad to see first Apple, now Motorola moving away from us, which means less collection” for Google’s location database.

In other words, it’s reasonable to infer that Android handsets are quietly still collecting wireless access point information correlated to location. This information is strategically important, and the company with the most accurate information will win.

It’s a simple feature. But behind the scenes, there’s a battle going on. It turns out that browser geolocation is like laws and sausages: it’s better not to see them being made.

Photo: Compass Inlay by Steve Snodgrass, released under a Creative Commons license.