Where 2.0: Skyhook Wireless

Over the coming weeks I’ll be featuring the people, technology, and companies that we’re having at Where 2.0. Today’s company is Skyhook Wireless, a company from Intel Research. Skyhook’s technology lets any device determine its position by triangulating wifi signals. You might have heard of location sensing through wifi Skyhook’s technology before, as part of the open source Intel research project Place Lab. Skyhook represents is the venture-backed commercial extension of this technology. [Update 4May06: Skyhook’s not an extension of Place Lab, they’re a completely separate system. All they share with Place Lab is the medium of wifi and a common parent in Intel]

At the heart of Skyhook is a database of wifi basestation locations and proprietary algorithms for determining your location based on the strengths of the wifi basestations you can see. Each station has various confidence factors associated with it, and the patents are around how to combine those confidence factors to figure out the best guess at your current location. Because it’s just algorithms and wifi, any wifi-enabled device can implement the algorithms, there’s no extra hardware, and it works indoors (but not, obviously, where there’s no wifi).

So Skyhook have built a location-sensing platform. But platforms are buggers to sell: you’re a step removed from actual consumer needs, and there’s a chicken-and-egg problem with applications (can you imagine trying to get seed funding for BASF? “We won’t make the products you use, we’ll make them better!” “What? This is 1865; get thee to the chem lab and make me something I can sell!”). So Skyhook have created Loki, a Firefox toolbar that uses the Skyhook platform to figure out your current location so you can have one-click local search, mapping, and location sharing.

Because they’re a platform where their key is this huge database of locations, they keep that database proprietary. Every location lookup involves the signal strengths being sent to the Skyhook servers, matched, and the location returned. This is unlike the PlaceLab approach, where your data stays on your machine. Why is this important? This information is may be subpoenable and the day may come when the Skyhook logs of your PDA’s location are subpoenaed in your divorce case. I expect this will come up in privacy discussions at Where 2.0. [Updated 5May06: unyet tested in court that this info would be handed over via subpoena]

From a Web 2.0 point of view, Skyhook has it going. At their heart is a data business: they have 50-100 drivers on the road at any one point in time, using GPS units and wifi scanners to create the database of “this wireless access point is at this location” information. This will be their defensible head-start, the high barrier-to-entry that’ll make it difficult for other companies to challenge them. By end of Q3 this year they’ll have mapped the wifi signals around 70% of the US population.

Another aspect of Web 2.0 is using your users. Skyhook has “tier 2 data collection”, which is what they call it when you (running Loki) find a new wifi signal. These signals are scored with confidence and automatically graduate to the first tier (the tier that’s actually used to tell users where they are) when enough users have found the same AP. Until your favourite AP is graduated, though, you as a Skyhook user are free to define your own location and say “I want to trust the APs around me to mean this location” and that’ll always work just for you.

Skyhook is also forming allegiances with other companies in the Where 2.0 space. They’re working with Socialight and uLocate’s Where mobile social local app. They’ll be in the Where 2.0 expo hall and speaking on Wednesday.