Windows 7 knows where you are

CNET | November 7, 2008
By Ina Fried

LOS ANGELES--Windows 7 has a new programming interface designed to make it a whole lot easier for software to figure out where in the world a PC and its user are located.

That should make it easier for a whole new range of location-based services from finding nearby friends to LoJack-like PC tracking programs. Even search could be a whole lot better if the search engine knew where you were. Indeed, searchers often enter their city with their location to try and get just that benefit.

"There's so many times you have to enter in where you are at," said Microsoft program manager Alec Berntson.

At the same time, broader use of location-based services could also open up a range of privacy concerns.

Those issues--and how to handle them--was the subject of a discussion this week at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) here.

Microsoft does give a range of control options, such as turning off location services by default, as well as the ability to limit such services only to specific users or only to applications, as opposed to services that run in the background. However, the operating system doesn't allow users the option of letting only certain applications access your location. So, for example, if you turn it on for a mapping program, any other Windows application running could also access that information.

The reason, Microsoft officials say, is that Windows doesn't have a reliable means of determining that an application is what it says it is, so any attempt to limit the location to a specific application would be easily spoofable, Berntson said during the WinHEC discussion.

"We only promise the control that we can realistically give to them, rather than trying to promise more than we can deliver," Berntson said.

That said, application-based control, "would be great to have and it is certainly on our Christmas list for future stuff," he said.

But, not everyone felt that Windows 7 was doing all it could on the privacy front. One attendee suggested, for example, that Microsoft at least notify users when an application requests location information.

Although technically possible, Berntson said that's not currently on Microsoft's roadmap for Windows 7.

In fairness, location-based services are actually more secure in Windows 7 than in the past. That's because in past versions of Windows, there was really no way to reliably turn off location information.

"The old way of doing it--there was no warning, there was no switch, there was nothing," said Microsoft lead product manager Daniel Polivy. That said, it was so cumbersome that few people have enabled such location-based information or built services on top of them.

A pair of APIs
So just what is it that Microsoft is doing in Windows 7?

Well, at a low level, Microsoft has a new application programming interface (API) for sensors and a second API for location. It uses any of a number of things to actually get the location, depending on what's available. Obviously there's GPS, but it also supports Wi-Fi and cellular triangulation. At a minimum. Users can type in their location if they really want location-based services and don't have any of those other sensors.

Applications can then use that longitude and latitude information to provide any number of services to the customer, of which mapping is only the tip of the iceberg. Most of those applications will be up to developers, though. The only location-based service in the current Windows 7 OS itself is the fact that the weather gadget will use your location, assuming you have such services available and turned on.

Masafumi Kuboyama, a senior manager in Sony's Vaio PC unit in Japan, said he wants to know what's going on in his system and would appreciate knowing what the location-based services were up to. Most computer users, though, don't want to be bothered, he said.

"My relatives never understand what's going on in a PC," he said. "Everybody says, 'Please do (it) automatically.'"

He also said he's interested in the possibilities opened up by location-based services. "I'm looking forward to seeing more convenient applications for the Netbook."

Tim Zinsky, a software architect at Hewlett-Packard, said he wasn't all that disappointed that Microsoft isn't providing all the pieces with its location API.

Zinsky, who stressed he was speaking for himself and not HP, said he isn't convinced that there isn't a way to track which applications are using the location information.

"They are underestimating the capability there," he said. "I think they could do it."

But that's OK with him. "I don't want it all to come from Microsoft," he said. "If they can't do it, maybe somebody else or another company can do it."