Thursday, April 30, 2009 9:24 AM
Many of us have been saying it for a long time: location based services are the future. But up until now they've been a distant, hazy future, because they've been so difficult to use. That's going to change soon, and it looks like Google is going to be leading the way.
Google has just announced that it has become the default location provider service in Firefox, which means beginning in the latest Firefox Beta (available here) users will be able to update their location from their web browser without having to install an extra plugins or programs through Google. This is big.
Location based services take a lot of flack for their privacy issues, but so far the biggest obstacle in their acceptance has been that they're a huge pain to use, typically requiring extra browser plugins and annoying sign-up processes. The new version of Firefox is probably going to change that, at least for desktop browsers, because it will have location detection baked in. Up until now it seemed like Mozilla was going to be using Geode, a plugin it first annouced back in October, as its default location provider.
The switch to Google is obviously a big win for Google Latitude, and it will also likely give Google access to volumes of local data that will allow it to offer hyper-targeted advertising to businesses (or maybe not, at least for now - see below). As with Google's search deal with Mozilla, which was recently extended through 2011, I suspect Google is paying a pretty penny for the right to be the browser's default provider. In 2006, that search deal alone reportedly accounted for $57 million, or around 85% of Mozilla's total revenue.
Update: Mozilla says that there is no money changing hands in this case, and that it is totally unrelated to the search deal. Mozilla wanted to break the 'chicken and the egg' problem of location, and decided to go with Google because they saw eye-to-eye on privacy issues.
Update 2: Google says that the data isn't currently being used for advertising purposes (at least for now), and that this is really about getting location-based functionality deployed to the web. But even without the advertising dollars, there is one very major upside: Google is going to be able to perfect its location database, with millions of users tapping into it on a daily basis. And that database is going to be extremely valuable going forward.
Google's plans extend well beyond the Firefox browser, too. Internet Explorer is still the dominant browser on the web, and Google recently released an update to its Toolbar which includes the same location detection service as Firefox will. Of course, users will still have to download the plugin, which makes the barrier to entry significantly higher than it will be on Firefox.