Fire Eagle serves as a user-controlled distribution hub for location data. It accepts location data from devices like mobile phones or from users themselves and makes that information available programmatically to third-party services.
Yahoo likens Fire Eagle to a switchboard that distributes location data based on user-selected privacy settings.
Tom Coates, head of product at Yahoo Brickhouse, said the idea behind Fire Eagle is to bring location awareness to everything on the Internet and to give control back to the user.
At an outward level, Fire Eagle does just that by allowing the user to distribute as much or as little location data as he or she chooses. It provides a "Hide Me" option that temporarily hides location data going into Fire Eagle and a button to "Purge all my location information from Fire Eagle."
Yahoo doesn't store old location data, said Coates. That should save Yahoo from a lot of subpoenas from those seeking to use location data in litigation. As a further deterrent to legal uses of Fire Eagle data, the service's coordinates aren't necessarily reliable. While devices may accurately report where they are, users updating Fire Eagle manually can enter any location they choose.
"We think it's a good thing that users can lie," said Coates.
For all the control Yahoo gives Fire Eagle users, it can't give them control over how outside companies use Fire Eagle data. While Yahoo has guidelines for its partners, it doesn't impose strict contractual obligations on the handling of location data. So Fire Eagle users need to understand the privacy policies of services to which they provide location data. Just because Yahoo offers a button to delete location data doesn't mean that Yahoo's partners accord users that much control.
Since private beta testing began in March, more than 50 different services, including Dopplr, Pownce, Movable Type, and Navizon, have integrated Fire Eagle data.
The use cases for location data tend to skew toward social networking applications that help friends find each other. But other more broadly practical uses are starting to emerge. For example, a site called Outside.in offers a feature called Radar that lets users see news stories and related information within a thousand feet of their location. As more devices and applications start making use of location data, other use cases and perhaps business models are likely to emerge.
Location-based advertising is an obvious direction for the technology, but Coates said that Yahoo hasn't yet integrated Fire Eagle into its search marketing platform. However, he expects that outside developers will experiment with ads augmented by Fire Eagle's information.
Yahoo Brickhouse, located in San Francisco's South of Market district, was launched last year as a startup-style incubator where small development teams work unhindered by corporate bureaucracy.
Mike Folgner, the former Jumpcut CEO who recently took over running Yahoo Brickhouse, characterized Fire Eagle as a project that would pave the way for future growth at Yahoo. Though he doesn't yet see location data as an investment on par with mobile or search technology, he pointed to the presence of Yahoo co-founder David Filo at the Fire Eagle launch event as an indication of the company's commitment to its evolving development platform.