Loki (Beta)

Price: Free
Pros: Helps you find relevant search, mapping and other information without having to type in your location.
Cons: Limited coverage areas and Web site choices; not yet available on mobile or non-Windows platforms.

It’s hard to imagine a time when we didn’t have the Web as an omnipresent resource for all the various bits of information one needs in the course of daily life. Since much of that information — checking the weather, finding the location of a nearby store, buying movie tickets, or getting driving directions — varies depending on where you are, entering your location is often a prelude to getting any meaningful results. 

Typing in your address at every other site you visit can quickly get to be a hassle, and while browser cookies certainly help if you’re always in the same place, they’re almost useless if you access the Web from several different locations. And let’s face it, sometimes, particularly if you’re outside of your home area, you may not be quite sure precisely where you are.

Loki, a free service currently in beta from Skyhook Wireless, offers a potential solution to this problem. In a nutshell, Loki uses a WLAN-equipped notebook to access the company’s Wi-Fi Positioning System (WPS) — a database of known access points — to triangulate your approximate physical location. After discerning your location via the WPS, Loki passes that information to Web sites to help you find various kinds of location-specific search and navigation information. I found that when Loki works, it works well. But it won’t work everywhere, nor with all wireless hardware.

Given the nature of the service, it might be natural to have some concerns about privacy issues when using Loki. For its part, the company says it doesn’t store or track queries made against the WPS. The Loki Web browser plug-in requires Windows XP and is available for both Internet Explorer and Firefox. Versions for other platforms are currently under development, including Mac OS, Linux, Windows Mobile and Palm OS. I couldn’t get Loki to recognize the Wi-Fi adapter on one laptop (a Lenovo ThinkPad), but it did work with a Centrino-equipped Dell Inspiron 600m.

For Loki to figure out where you are, you need to be in Loki’s coverage area, which Skyhook says includes the largest 100 metropolitan areas in the U.S. I tested Loki in St. Petersburg, Florida, and it was able to correctly provide coordinates. If you’re outside Loki’s coverage area or the software can’t locate you via the WPS for some reason, it falls back to using your IP address, which is a considerably less precise method of geolocation — I tried this on the ThinkPad, and it placed me in Orlando (about 100 miles to the northeast). When Loki returns less-than-accurate information, you can “tune” it by telling it your address, but you’ll probably need to update it each time you move to a new location — which really defeats the purpose.

Using Loki

Once Loki knows where you are, you can use its toolbar to access “channels,” basically bookmarks for Web sites in a range of categories. Loki has about three dozen channels covering a range of common information categories like weather, traffic, shopping and dining, as well as things like movie times, ATM locations, or even gas prices. When you access a channel, your location information is passed along to the site, which returns customized results.

Loki can also simplify local searches when you use the search box built into its browser toolbar (from which you can access Google, Yahoo!, Ask or Amazon’s A9). With the Loki search box, your location is automatically included in the query, which eliminates the need to first establish your location or qualify your search terms. You can also perform a local search via a right-click context menu by highlighting any word on a Web page.

Obtaining maps and driving directions is another obvious area where Loki can be useful. If you want to see a map of where you are, you can summon one by clicking Loki’s Find Me button. An especially useful mapping feature is an address button that automatically highlights any address found on a page. Click on any highlighted address, and you’re automatically taken to driving directions, with your current location as the origin point.

If you blog from the road or post to media-sharing sites like Flikr, you can use Loki’s Geotag feature, which will automatically tag your post with your location data. You can also quickly send friends and family an e-mail with a map of your location.

Dozens of Channels, and Nothing On?

Loki’s major drawback is that the range of channels offered is broad, but — at least for the moment — not particularly deep.  For example, the choices for mapping sites are the same as those available for search, but Loki doesn’t come with channels for, say, MapQuest or MSN Search. You can create custom Loki channels, but it involves constructing a URL from scratch in a format correct for the particular site, and knowing whether the form uses HTML’s GET or POST method. Given that these skills are not in the repertoire of the average Web user, the upshot is that while Loki can probably provide a source to get the information you want, it may not work with the specific sites you’re accustomed to using. (The company says it’s working on ways to simplify the process of creating channels, and the support forum contains some additional channels created by Loki users.)

In spite of its limitations, spend some time with Loki and it’s easy to see the potential for saving time and effort when hunting down location-specific information as you move around town. Aside from the limited coverage areas, Loki’s biggest catch is the meager channel choices, which for some will make using the service akin to switching health insurance plans and then finding out that your favorite doctor doesn’t take the new plan. The service is still in Beta, though, and pending improvements on these two fronts — Skyhook says it’s always adding new access points to the WPS database, and in fact, collects them from end users —  Loki (and future products using the Skyhook WPS)  should prove more universally handy in the future.

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