The first of several new location-aware capabilities AOL plans to offer AIM users is a free software plug-in developed by Skyhook Wireless. Skyhook tracks locations by using the continuous wireless pulses emitted by all Wi-Fi transmitters and Wi-Fi-enabled computers, rather using Global Positioning Satellite capabilities built into a growing number of mobile handsets. The Skyhook plug-in adds a new grouping to AIM's buddy list window called "Near Me", which displays any friends who opt to share their locations and who happen to be within a set distance from the AIM user. The application also can display a buddy's location on a map. Marcien Jenckes, who heads the AIM business, 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."
Skyhook 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% 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.