AOL is offering users of its AIM instant messaging service new capabilities to see where people on their buddy lists are physically located.
The first phase of this push is with an unusual software plug-in developed by Skyhook Wireless, whose backers include Intel Corp. Skyhook tracks locations by using the continuous wireless pulses emitted by all Wi-Fi transmitters and Wi-Fi-enabled computers, rather than more common satellite-based approach.
The Skyhook plug-in, available as a free download, adds a new grouping to AIM's buddy list window called "Near Me." That group will feature the names of any buddies who opt to share their locations and who are within a set distance from the AIM user. The application also can display a buddy's location on a map. For now, these capabilities will be available when using AIM on a computer, but not on a cell phone.
AOL, a unit of Time Warner Inc., told The Associated Press the Skyhook application was the first of several new location-aware capabilities it plans to add to AIM in the next couple of months, but the company declined to elaborate.
"As we build these platforms for people to connect, we find that context is very important," said Marcien Jenckes, who heads the AIM business.
Jenckes said that when deciding whether to contact someone via phone, e-mail or IM, "people think through what's the right mechanism. It might depend on how much time I have to talk or how involved I want to be in the conversation or what I'm doing. Proximity or location is another one of those factors that will play an increasing role."
AIM's new features are being introduced at a time when cell phone companies are launching an array of location-based services to provide driving directions, help parents keep tabs on the whereabouts of a child, or to show when friends and family are in the vicinity.
While both Jenckes and Ted Morgan, founder and chief executive of Skyhook, said they expect to see the new location capabilities integrated with the AIM clients now found on cell phones, that means they will need to persuade wireless carriers to facilitate the competition with their own location-based offerings.
Notably, where those cellular services rely on the Global Positioning Satellite capabilities built into a growing number of mobile handsets, the Skyhook system was developed through a seemingly oddball, laborious process:
The company has spent the past few years driving a fleet of 200 trucks up and down the streets of 2,500 cities and towns across the United States and Canada. These trucks scan for the pulse given off at least once a second by every home wireless router or commercial hotspot, recording the unique identifying code for that piece of Wi-Fi equipment. That code is correlated with the exact physical location where it was captured using GPS in the trucks, which cruise the streets at 15 to 50 miles per hour as they collect this information.
The resulting database consists of 16 million Wi-Fi access points covering an area where Skyhook says 70 percent of the U.S. population lives and six Canadian markets where the majority of that nation's people live.
When an AIM user installs Skyhook, the application gathers the identifying codes for all access points that are detected by the Wi-Fi card in the computer, then compares those with the database to identify the person's location. When connected via a non-Wi-Fi computer, a user can manually input a location.
"I am a big admirer of the logistics and effort that goes into creating the kind of database that Skyhook has built," Jenckes said.