It should be pretty clear by now that Google is taking location very seriously. The original launch of Latitude in early 2009 was just a first step. Now they have robust APIs, Google Places, and key executive Marissa Mayer is now in charge of these and various related projects. And earlier today they finally rolled out a Latitude iPhone app. But if a fairly small tweak to Chrome is any indication, Google means to go deeper still.
More specifically, Chromium, the open source browser on which Chrome is based, just recently received a new experimental feature hidden behind a flag (meaning you have to explicitly enable it). In the latest builds of Chromium version 10, you’ll see an option called “Experimental location features”. Apparently, when switched on, this allows the browser to run “experimental extensions to the geolocation feature.”
The description clarifies it a bit more: “Includes using operating system location APIs (where available), and sending additional local network configuration data to the Google location service to provide higher accuracy positioning.” Obviously, that last bit is particularly interesting. Clearly, Google hopes to improve location accuracy within the browser — a problem since most of it is drawn from WiFi triangulation data rather than GPS (which most computers don’t have). But it would seem that they also mean to build out their own location database and services with the data they collect from this feature in Chrome.
There’s currently a war brewing underneath the location apps that consumers see. It involves location and place databases and services. It used to be that everyone, including the big boys, went to companies like Skyhook Wireless and Localeze for location data and functionality. But increasingly, the tech superpowers like Apple, Google, and Facebook are building out their own. Why? Because they all want to own the local space.
But Google has perhaps the most interesting positioning here. After all, their millions of Android phones come with location built into their Maps product. Apple has this too with the iPhone, but remember that it’s Google Maps that’s also included on the iPhone (though it is said that Apple builds the app on their own, simply using Google’s data). And now Google is starting to really push their location services like Latitude and the new Hot Pot. And just in case you don’t think anyone is actually using Latitude, Google made it clear today that it has 9 million active users — that’s nearly double Foursquare’s total user base.
Of course, there are still questions as to just how many people are actually using Latitude, versus how many enable it via Maps on Android devices and don’t even really realize it. But it almost doesn’t matter, Google is still getting that data. That’s why it’s so vital that they control all of these various entry points. And soon, it looks like Chrome will be another one. And that’s key just in case the Chrome notebooks take off. Location services will have successfully made the jump from smartphones to notebooks.
And all of this is key to what Mayer talked about on stage at LeWeb last week: the move towards “contextual discovery“. Getting results without searching.