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.

Agit props

June 13, 2011 | 1 comment

My talented friend Michael Goldrei designed the icon set for Agit, a Git client for Android by Roberto Tyley. Git has become the creative geek’s source control system of choice, and having a native Android client is a great thing. (Source control allows the source code for an application to be managed in a way that prevents developers from overwriting each other’s changes, or from making irreversible, catastrophic mistakes that destroy everything. It’s pretty much crucial in modern software development.)

If you’ve got an Android device, you can grab Agit from the Android Market over here.

Roberto actually fixed Android’s zlib implementation in the process; the patch he submitted is now running on some of the newer Honeycomb tablets. He’s also designed the app to share SSH connection information in a pool with other compatible apps – something that would be completely impossible on iOS. I’m looking forward to seeing more developer tools in this vein.

Why HP’s take on WebOS could be a very big deal

February 10, 2011 | 4 comments

Jon Rubenstein introduces new HP TouchPadYesterday, HP finally delivered an iPad competitor I can get excited about, not just by creating an elegant piece of hardware, but by taking a step back and outthinking their competition. Unlike the iPad, the TouchPad is part of a seamless technology ecosystem that also encompasses smartphones, PCs and printers, all running the same operating system and sharing through the same wireless infrastructure.

Printing, file-sharing, synchronization and even charging just work without cables or configuration. It’s clever stuff, and only a company like HP – with well-accepted products in virtually every technology market segment – could have pulled it off. Not only does the TouchPad run their recently-acquired WebOS; so do their Palm Pre phones, and so will their desktops and laptops.

Before the iPad, tablets were a jokey afterthought in the gamut of home devices, largely governed by Bill Gates’s pen-bound vision for how those devices should behave, and Apple’s previous failure with the Newton. With the iPad, Apple turned them into a must-have accessory that made most domestic computing tasks easier. The 3G version beat expectations by eschewing contracts, making mobile Internet use both more attractive and affordable. As soon as it launched, it seemed like a wonderful progression. I love mine: it’s been used to write code, fix servers, write and read articles, read entire novels, watch movies and kill time on the plane. It’s not that I couldn’t do without it. I wouldn’t want to – even despite the crashing applications, slow sync times and horrible iTunes user experience.

But competition in the market is healthy for consumers. It drives prices down, quality up, and gives us all choices. But for some reason, nobody’s managed to provide a satisfactory competitor to the iPad. This may relate to the app store model: because Apple takes 30% of all app store sales, it can sell its devices at a lower margin than its competitors. Android tablets, on the other hand, really need to use the Android Market, which is shared between them – and while cellphone carriers get a cut, tablet manufacturers don’t. That means, for example, that the Motorola Xoom will cost $799 – $300 more than the cheapest iPad. Because everyone expects the Apple device to be at the top end of the market, Android offerings need to be priced below it, particularly when they’re directly competing feature-for-feature. It’s beginning to seem like this might be impossible.

What’s cool about the HP offering is that it doesn’t just create competition: it actually makes the iPad look clunky, which is something nobody else has managed yet. What’s more, they have an Apple-like advantage in their homegrown App Catalog, and by including printers, they’ve brought ink cartridges into the pricing ecosystem, so the up-front cost should be low. The seamless wireless integration between devices makes it perfect for business as well as home use, and WebOS’s reliance on web technologies makes it attractive to developers like me.

That’s the key. It’s not just that I’m excited to use them; HP have made me excited about developing for WebOS devices. Taken in conjunction with Android’s growing dominance, not to mention the rumor of two new iPads before December, it’s going to be a very interesting year.

Photo: Jon Rubenstein introduces new HP TouchPad, by Robert Scoble. Shared under a CC license.

Openness wins

January 14, 2011 | 3 comments

Android and iPhoneDan Lyons, writing in Newsweek, doesn’t think the introduction of the iPhone on Verizon will stop Android’s momentum:

Apple’s phone would have snuffed out the Android a year ago, but now Google’s device has become an unstoppable juggernaut.

[…] “Android is a global phenomenon,” [Fred Wilson] says. “The big deal is, Android is free software, and handsets that can run it are getting super-cheap. So we are going to see a massive shift from ‘dumb phones’ to ‘smart phones’ around the world this year, and iPhone will not be the big beneficiary of that trend.”

This is exactly the mistake Apple made over twenty years ago, when it let IBM walk all over the personal computer market with its open specification. Sure, the Apple Mac popularized the idea of easy-to-use home computing, but over 90% of the machines actually sitting on peoples’ desks were IBM PC compatible. Worldwide, Mac market share is less than 5%.

I’ve complained about Android in the past, but version 2.2 changed my mind; more recently, Android-only features have been saving my bacon. It’s a great system, and its open structure allows for more innovation both in hardware and software than its competitors. To build an iPhone app, I’d need to pay to join the developer program and buy a Mac. To build an Android app, I can download the SDK and get going – no matter what kind of computer I use. That’s a real difference in attitude, and one that will ultimately see Apple’s phone devices share the fate of their desktop cousins.

Illustration: Android and iPhone by Quinn Dombrowski, released under a Creative Commons license.

Next Page »