Where are the Firefox GPS add-ons?

Firefox 3.5 has been out for a few weeks now, and amongst all the exciting new features is an API for geolocation.

In theory this means that a website can ask the browser where you are, and you then get prompted as to whether or not to let the site know. Of course that raises the question of how the browser knows where you are in the first place.

Firefox uses “geolocation providers” – small bits of software that can provide geolocation information to Firefox, so that Firefox can provide it to the website. By default Firefox ships with a geolocation provider which makes an educated guess about your location based on the wifi hotspots in the area – assuming your computer has a wireless card. This works reasonably well for a wifi-enabled laptop, but it’s far from GPS-level accuracy, and doesn’t help if you’re on a machine with no wifi card at all (in which case it bases its location information on your IP address – which puts my desktop machine about 100 miles away from its real location!).

So what can you do if wifi-based location just isn’t suitable for you? In theory it’s possible to use different geolocation providers which source their data from different places. On “Fennec”, the mobile browser based on Firefox, there’s a provider for the built-in GPS of the Nokia web tablets. But there doesn’t seem to be an add-on to let the normal version of Firefox get that same information.

There is an extension that lets you put in a fixed latitude and longitude, which is fine for a desktop machine – but that hasn’t been updated to work with the release versions of Firefox 3.5. Most GPS units connect to a PC using fairly standard and well-known serial protocols running over a Bluetooth or USB connection – yet I can’t find any add-ons which will allow Firefox to access those data.

I hope that either I’ve just missed them in my searches – or that suitable geolocation providers are coming soon – because it would be a real shame to see the potential for geolocation in the browser get ignored for want of such a little bit of code.

There’s more about the geolocation feature at the Mozilla Hacks site, and based on the comments there, I’m not the only one wondering where the GPS integration is.

Comments (7)

  1. Unfortunately not. I think that an add-on to do this on a Linux system should be quite easy using GPSd to interface to the GPS unit, but I have no idea if there’s an equivalent abstraction layer available for Windows or MacOS. If no abstraction layer is available, it would imply that a generic add-on would have to deal with all the different GPS units itself. I’m surprised, however, that none of the GPS vendors seem to be offering add-ons to work with their own particular units.

    Unfortunately this leaves us in a catch-22 situation: no add-ons mean that few sites use geolocation; few sites using it mean that there’s little incentive to develop an add-on.

  2. Hi! Any news? Searching the net revealed not much and it looks like there are no Firefox GPS add-ons available yet. Also, it seems that Windows 7 Sensor and Location Platform is a platform without any GPS device drivers. Does someone know if there has been any progress on the subject lately?

  3. I don’t know of any news for Windows – the link that you posted looks like it could be a good start for someone looking to implement a suitable add-on for Windows 7 though.

    For Linux the outlook is a little better: “Firefox 3.6 added support for using the GPSD service for geolocation on Linux“.

    I haven’t tried it myself yet, though. I know one person who has tried it, and he had no success with it: his GPS defaults to outputting in its own proprietary format; GPSD can read it normally, but Firefox apparently tries to parse the NMEA strings itself – which isn’t the format coming out of the GPS. It seems like it defeats the purpose of using GPSD if you’re going to ignore its ideas about location in favour of parsing the raw data yourself – GPSD becomes little more than a serial port aggregator in that situation. So even on Linux it would seem that there’s still scope for an add-on which actually queries GPSD for its own parsed location information, rather than raw data.

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