May 2, 2011 at 4:56 PM ET
Newly revealed emails between new Google CEO Larry Page and top cohorts at the company show just how important gathering location-based data is to its mobile strategy and how competitive it is with those who try to usurp it from Android phones.
The emails are a year old, but they give context and background to why, for mobile phones as well as home values, it really is all about location, location, location.
The San Jose Mercury News obtained the emails, which were between Google location service product manager Steve Lee, product executives Jonathan Rosenberg and John Hanke; head of Android, Andy Rubin and Page over Memorial Day weekend 2010. Apparently, then-president of products Page sent an email containing an article he copied and pasted into the body of the message that showed competitor Skyhook Wireless achieving a major coup in being chosen over Google by Motorola as the location service for its Android phones. He asked his advisers for a response.
Lee wrote back:
"I cannot stress enough how important Google's wifi location database is to our Android and mobile product strategy ... We absolutely do care about this (decision by Motorola) because we need wifi data collection in order to maintain and improve our wifi location service."
Rubin and the other Google execs wrote that the data collected on users' Android phones was "extremely valuable to Google." There were also details about the dust-up about Google Street View, which was the focus of investigations for its cars that ingested data from unsecured Wi-Fi networks here and abroad while gathering photos and other information to populate its maps.
The Merc includes an excerpt from a letter Google wrote to U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) last year in response to inquiries about why the company needed Wi-Fi information vs. what it could acquire from satellites.
"Information about the location of WiFi networks improves the accuracy of the location-based services, such as Google Maps or driving directions, that Google provides to consumers ... Because GPS and cell tower data can be unreliable or inaccurate, in some cases using the location of Wi-Fi access points can enable a smartphone to pinpoint its own location more quickly and accurately."
After the scrutiny that came out of those revelations, Google decided to put the kabosh on using Google Street View vehicles to map Wi-Fi networks, but not before it had logged the location of more than 300 million Wi-Fi access points after three years of acquiring the information using its Street View and location-based phone data. According to the documents obtained by the Merc, this info could "pinpoint a smartphone user's location with an accuracy of within 98 feet." (Holy "Enemy of the State"!)
Skyhook and Google are in the midst of legal wrangling. Skyhook sued Google in Massachusetts state court, accusing the search giant of pressuring Motorola to use its location service exclusively, rather than allow both Google and Skyhook to operate on its phones. Whatever advantage Skyhook had in the spring, it had lost by the fall, when it filed the lawsuit against Google. Business Insider has more details on that. Skyhook is seeking damages exceeding tens of millions of dollars. The emails are also mentioned in the lawsuit.
Skyhook also filed a federal lawsuit against Google for patent infringement.
All this comes as Apple, Google and even Microsoft are still riding the residual shockwaves over the privacy uproar in tracking smartphone owners' movements. (Msnbc.com is a joint Microsoft-NBC Universal venture.) Consumers can opt out of being part of the anonymous data collection, but Google reiterated recently that the information gathered from the phones can't be tied back to specific people.