Firefox 3.5 Brings Geolocation to Mass Users

Posted by Glenn Fleishman at 3:59 PM

Firefox 3.5 has shipped with location finding turned on: The latest release of Firefox includes by default the option to use a computer’s IP address and, if available, a scan of nearby wireless networks to provide a location to Web sites that use appropriate JavaScript to request a position. Users can opt out when asked, disable location requests for a site, or disable location requests entirely. However, « ask for permission » is on by default.

Firefox is using Google Location Services, which is a combination of cellular tower data that the company has assembled along with some unknown method of collecting and locating Wi-Fi hotspots, much as Skyhook Wireless has been doing for years. Likely, Google gathers this information as it drives the streets for Google Maps.

Mozilla’s location mascot

With several tens of millions of smartphones (iPhone and Android-based models mostly) and handhelds (almost entirely the iPod touch) providing location data through various combinations of Wi-Fi, cellular trilateration, and built-in GPS, getting a location instantly may not seem that interesting any more on the desktop or laptop.

But it still seems to have a place. Location has two purposes. One is to find oneself, an existential proposition if I ever heard of one, because you don’t know where you are. But the other is to identify your location to someone else because you want them to know where you are for some purpose: personal, commercial, or otherwise.

In the latter category, having location built into a browser lets Web sites offer rich location data even when you’re at home. Aren’t you frustrated about having to type in repeatedly your street address for work or home to find something in proximity, such as with a store locator? Wouldn’t you like to have Web applications that automatically took advantage of your location by providing relevant data you didn’t need to look up separately? (There are already plenty of utilities for Mac OS X and Windows that can use location to system-wide settings, such as backlighting, r to launch or quit programs, or change your instant messaging status.)

Smartphones work best at giving you instant proximity data when you’re out and about, because there’s zero startup time. You take the phone out, hit the wake button, and run a program. I’ve become addicted nearly instantly to Urbanspoon after installing it on my iPhone because it tells me with incredibly little fuss what’s near me. I needed to find a place to take my older son for lunch, and his appetite doesn’t mesh well with restaurants. He agreed to eat a hot dog. I punched in hot dog into Urbanspoon and within a few seconds found a suitable place. (He did eat the hot dog, and about a million fries. We went to Schultzy’s.)

A laptop is a much more tedious operation for a spur-of-the-moment check. You have to dig it out, find a surface on which to balance it or hold it in your hand, wake it or power it up, find a network connection (unless you have a cell data card), find the Web site you want, and so forth.

The flip side is that when your desktop or laptop is already running, and you need a location-based piece of information, it’s far more convenient to get a full, fast browser experience, with a real keyboard you can use to type in what you’re looking for.

We’ll see how it pans out. Sites have to enable location services, which should work identically in Firefox 3.5 and Chrome, and which will likely spread to other browsers over time if there’s interest. (I suspect indexing software can identify if the JavaScript used on sites contains location calls, and smart people will use that to quantify geolocation-aware sites.)

There has to be a pull from sites to make people interested in and expecting to use location services. If all that sites do is enable store locators via this option, I can’t see much interest developing over time. But if sites can find unique ways to let the browser plus location combination provide the social networking or sheer utility of many smartphone apps, then the uptake could be large.

Part of this could happen through making laptops act more like smartphones, too, trickling technology back up. While Sprint includes GPS technology in all its 3G networking cards and dongles–and an API for developers–that’s about the extent of GPS in most mainstream products.

Netbooks already have many of the attributes of smartphones (small, fast turn-on time), and are starting to gain ubiquitous networking via built-in 3G cell cards. This makes Dell’s decision to put a GPS chip in its Mini 10 quite fascinating. The company has also paired with Skyhook Wireless, which will integrate Wi-Fi and GPS data for a location result. The GPS-equipped model ships next week. Pricing is still unknown, but a reputable gadget site puts the cost at $70 above the current $300 to $350 price tag.

This turns a cheap netbook into a potentially fabulous turn-by-turn navigation system–although you certainly want to have a passenger holding it or figure out a mounting system. The Dell Wireless 700 option, as the company labels it, comes with CoPilot software as part of the cost. But it also means that people with netbooks and without smartphones will have fast and accurate location data.

Is this part of a revolution? Location-based services (LBS) have been discussed as the next big thing for targeting advertising, coupons, and, well, information of use for several years. The stars (and satellites) may finally be aligning.

Mozilla Configuration

Location preferences are a bit obscure. By default, permission-based location access is enabled in Firefox 3.5. If you click a link where a site is attempting to use the Geolocation API’s JavaScript, you’re presented with a prompt along the top bar of the browser, much as with pop-up windows and certain security alerts. On the left you see a message, with the site requesting location data:

wants_location.jpg

On the right, a set of options, which let you set a once-only share (Share Location by itself) or a site-based share (check Remember for This Site and then Share Location). You can also click Don’t Share or click the X to close the bar.

location_permission.jpg

If you set site-wide location permissions, then you have to be on a page at the site in order to disable this permission. Select Page Info from the Tools menu, click the Permissions tab, and then you can modify the options for Share Location. You can use a combination of options, such as unchecking Always Ask and setting the radio button to Block or Allow. Or check Always Ask to re-enable that behavior.

To disable geolocation for the browser, type about:config in the Location bar, then type geo.enabled, and finally double click the geo.enabled preference. Repeat these steps (or double click the preference again while displayed) to turn location back on.

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