The news that most caught my attention during Steve Jobs' Apple keynote today was not the MacBook Air, but rather the announcement that the new iPhone firmware—Version 1.1.3—includes location-based tracking for Google Maps that use not only cell phone triangulation, but Wi-Fi-based locationing services as well.
The Wi-Fi location tracking is apparently being provided by Skyhook Wireless, a company that has spent the last few years building and (constantly) updating a massive database of Wi-Fi access point positions in major cities across the United States. Unlike traditional GPS services, Skyhook's technology could and should work indoors—depending on whether a Skyhook-enhanced Wi-Fi client can see access points that are already in their database.
According to Skyhook's Web site:
"To pinpoint location, WPS (Wi-Fi Positioning System) uses a massive reference network comprised of the known locations of over 18 million Wi-Fi access points. To develop this database, Skyhook has deployed specialized vehicles to survey every single street, highway and alley in 2500 U.S. cities, scanning for Wi-Fi access points and plotting their precise geographic locations."
"Skyhook's Wi-Fi Positioning System's subsecond time-to-fix, +99% indoor availability and 10-20m accuracy in urban areas is the perfect compliment to GPS' known limitations."
The service is reliable enough that one laptop recovery service, CyberAngel Security Solutions, last year added a Wi-Fi-based tracking service to their portfolio based on Skyhook technology. CyberAngel's product provides an authentication and encryption layer to standard laptops. Users (or administrators) define a secured partition, where confidential data and applications are stored encrypted. When a user authenticates, the store is decrypted automatically for use. Conversely, a bad log-in attempt triggers alert to CyberAngel's servers (via LAN, WAN or modem connection) that the computer could be in a compromised state. Obviously, there needs to be an escalation process to avoid false positives for every failed log-in.
With the WiTrac service layered on, the alerting laptop can also report home any Wi-Fi access points it can see, sending to the service the MAC addresses of the access points detected, as well as the relative signal strengths of each detected device. This information can then be compared with Skyhook's database to return longitude and latitude coordinates of where the laptop is located. CyberAngel claims the service is accurate to around 10 meters.
When we spoke with CyberAngel's CEO Bradley Lide over the summer, the service cost $69.95 per laptop for a 1-year license, $129.90 for 3-year license, with volume discounts available as well. The Skyhook service was included in that price.
What will be interesting is, with the new iPhone SDK on target for delivery in late February, whether we may see CyberAngel (or someone else using Skyhook) provide recovery services for the iPhone as well—and perhaps authentication and encryption capabilities. These capabilities would suddenly make the iPhone—and its industry-leading mobile browser—a much more compelling solution for businesses exploring a Web application-oriented mobile solution.
For end users, it may not make fiscal sense at the prices listed above, but if such a service were offered as part of an extended AppleCare warranty service for the iPhone with a small premium (depending on the levels of functionality available from the service), many of us may actually consider it for a device that has fast become a centerpiece in our lives for both work and play.