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Geode - the Firefox add-on that knows where you are

Give or take 20 meters

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Mozilla's virtual lab has unveiled an experimental browser add-on capable of identifying where you are. Give or take 20 meters.

Known as Geode, this Firefox 3 add-on leverages the new W3C Geolocation spec, a way for websites to request your physical location - and for you to oblige. If you feel like it.

In trumpeting Geode from the Mozilla Labs blog, the open source outfit couldn't help but repeat the old what-an-easy-way-to-find-a-restaurant chestnut: "You’ve arrived in a new city, a new continent, a new coffee shop. You don’t really know where you are, and are looking for a good place to eat. You pull out your laptop, fire up Firefox, and go to your favorite review site. It automatically deduces your location, and serves up some delicious suggestions a couple blocks away and plots directions there."

But director of Firefox development Mike Beltzner says that restaurant reviews are only the beginning of a worldwide revolution. "It's about much more than just looking up restaurants that are nearby," he tells The Reg. "You can add that location aspect to search, weather reports, and so many other things. Location is going to change the way people interact with the web."

If you visit a site that hooks into the W3C API, Geode drops a small window that says something along the lines of "This website would like to know where you are." You can then send your exact location, your general neighborhood, your city, or nothing at all. If you choose to share your whereabouts, Geode taps into a third-party service that maps the WiFi signals streaming past your machine. According to Mozilla, Skyhook's Loki service can pinpoint your location to within 20 meters - in about a second.

Mozilla offers a demo site that calls the WSC API, and the open sourcers trumpet two third-party sites toying with geo-location: Pownce and Yahoo!'s FireEagle.

Next week, Mozilla will roll a Geode-like tool into the Firefox 3.1 beta, but it won't be tied to Skyhook. You'll have the freedom to locate yourself in other ways. This might include tapping into other location services, plugging into a GPS, or entering your whereabouts by hand. "In the long run, we don't want to be locked in to one provider," Beltzer says. "It might be the case that certain providers work better in certain areas."

Why release an add-on a week before baking the technology straight into the browser? Not everyone likes beta browsers. "Although we have a lot of people using our betas, only some people will move their day-to-day browsing solution to a beta build," Beltzer says. "We want to make sure we get feedback from as wide a set of users as possible, so it's pretty important to us to have an add-on for Firefox 3."

The API used by Geode is identical to the one about to debut with Firefox 3.1, so developers can use either in testing apps. Mozilla's API hooks won't change, but it's still toying with other bits.

"The fundamental thing we're trying to get across here is that geo-location is interesting. It's something that web pages and web users should be able to interact with. We have a whole bunch of open questions on this issue. What's the right default interaction? What's the right set of location providers? We're looking to Geode to help us answer those questions."

Beltzer says that Geode - and Firefox 3.1 - will never share your location data unless you give the OK. By default, that request window will appear each time you visit a geo-locating site. "We don't even remember your choice for a particular website," Beltzer says. "So if you go to Google*, it will ask you. And if you go to Google* again, it will ask you again." ®

* - Passing your physical location to Google is not recommended.

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