AIM plug-in IDs users' locations

New app uses Skyhook technology to more precisely identify the locations of AIM users, opening the door for improved local search opportunities

Users of AOL's AIM instant messaging system now have access to a plug-in that identifies their geographic location in a more precise manner than a similar plug-in developed last year.

The new plug-in, created by AOL with technology licensed from Skyhook Wireless, requires a Wi-Fi enabled PC because it determines locations by identifying nearby hot spots. Skyhook calls this method its Wi-Fi Positioning System.

The first AIM location plug-in, which AOL developed and delivered in May of last year, gets its information automatically from the ISP's network connection, which usually doesn't get more specific than a city. Users can also manually enter their locations, an AOL spokeswoman said Monday.

Internet companies like AOL see big benefits in knowing the geographic location of users of their online services and applications. For example, providers can tailor the advertising and information they serve up to users via those services and applications, showing someone in Boston, for example, ads for local businesses and the city's weather forecast.

In the case of AIM, the location information can be used to generate a map indicating where people in a user's buddy list are at the time. Users can also be alerted whenever a buddy is within a specific geographic range of them.

Later on, the plug-in will allow AIM users to conduct joint searches to find, say, a movie theather that is at a convenient location for both of them, said Ted Morgan, founder and CEO of Boston-based Skyhook. The plug-in will also later allow AIM users to search for business listings in their area and obtain driving directions, among other local search features, Morgan said.

AOL believes the plug-in will add another layer of relevant information and context about users' buddies to the IM interaction. The plug-in is optional to download and, once installed, can be turned on and off.

Right now, the plug-in doesn't work on mobile devices, although there are plans to support them later, AOL's spokeswoman said. It runs on Windows PCs only.

The plug-in identifies Wi-Fi hotspots detected by the computer and reports them back to Skyhook, which has a database of about 16 million hotspots in the U.S. Skyhook analyzes the data and estimates where the user is.

Skyhook has compiled its database by having a fleet of trucks drive around U.S. metro areas identifying hotspots of all types, including public ones, commercial ones at places like Starbucks, and private ones from individuals and businesses, Morgan said.

In aggregate, Skyhook's trucks have covered 10 percent to 15 percent of the U.S.' total area but where about 70 percent of the country's population lives, he said. Most of Canada's population is covered, and Skyhook is already building a hotspot database of Asia and Europe, he said.

Skyhook's license agreement with AOL isn't exclusive. Within the next three to six weeks, another major IM provider will announce its use of Skyhook technology, Morgan said.

The AIM Location plug-in can be downloaded for free from the AIM Plugin site. Users must be running AIM's 6.0 version, which requires Windows XP or Windows 2000.

In February 2007, AIM led the consumer IM market in the U.S. with 44.5 million unique users, followed by Microsoft's Windows Live Messenger with 26 million and Yahoo's Yahoo Messenger with 22.6 million users, according to Nielsen/NetRatings.