Updated May 1, 2009, at 8:40 a.m. PT with more specifics about how the Google Location Service works, and again at 11:40 a.m. with additional background information.
When Google Labs released its experimental browser toolbar with its My Location finder for Internet Explorer last week, we wondered why it wasn't available for Firefox. Now we know. Instead of being added on through a toolbar or extension, it was intended to be built in. So, on Thursday, Mozilla turned on a new feature for Firefox 3.5 beta 4, and for Fennec, the code name for the mobile version of Firefox: Google's geolocation service. Like the toolbar with My Location, Mozilla's opt-in engine will use your position to return more focused search results across the Web.
The functionality has been available prior to this release, in the form of Geode, an experimental Mozilla Labs add-on that implemented the W3C Geolocation Specification. While the support was there for third-party add-ons to use geolocation in Firefox 3.1, 3.5 and Fennec, Mozilla hadn't offered it directly until now.
Here's how it works. When you browse to a page that requests to know your location, you accept or decline. Declining does nothing, but accepting delivers your Wi-Fi access point or IP address details to Google Location Services, using an encrypted SSL connection (https). Google can then return an approximation of your location to the browser, which returns it to the requesting page. Using the classic example, a search for "movie theaters" or the weather will bring up local listings without you having to type in your city or ZIP code.
Privacy is a key concern here. With many computer users going out of their way to erase their Internet tracks, handing them over for the sake of saving a few keystrokes may seem foolhardy. To that end, Mozilla has posted in an FAQ section that "Firefox does not track or remember your location between sessions, never sends your location to any third party, and never sends it to any of Mozilla's servers."
Would you use this new geolocation feature, or does giving away your whereabouts give you the willies? Discuss in the comments.