Browsing Google Chrome and the Physical Web

Google Chrome Physical Web URL

Chrome 57 has launched, and with it in-browser support for the Physical Web. Now, when a user goes to conduct a search or enter a web URL, any nearby Physical Web addresses will appear just below the address bar as seen in the above graphic.

It adds another piece to the proximity puzzle – allowing your browser to show nearby URLs when you go to enter a Web URL or go to conduct a search.

Use Cases for Chrome URLs

Being able to see nearby Physical Web URLs in your browser suggests some interesting use cases/value propositions:

Closing the Gap on Physical Web Objects – in the world of the Physical Web you walk up to a “thing” and use it. In general, their use case is for that “thing” to include a Physical Web icon. You need to know that the object has a URL attached to it. This is usually accomplished through physical-world icons/signage. You then need to know to “pull down” on a notification tray to see it.

By adding Physical Web URLs to your browser search/address bar, there’s another path to making sure users will more easily be able to “see” that URL.

Show-rooming – Retailers still struggle with ‘show-rooming’ – where users will be shopping, say, for a fridge and go online to compare prices when in the store. By attaching a physical web beacon to the fridge, the retailer has a last chance to catch the user’s attention with a link of their own.

In the Home – This is, perhaps, where beacons can truly start to merge over with the connected home. Device makers (say, the Nest thermostat) can embed a Physical Web broadcast. Now, your thermostat, connected TV or other device can offer up a manual, support hotline or other information as an available link in your browser – and possibly bypass the need for a custom app.

Bluetooth in the Browser

Things start to get really interesting when you take into account the fact that Chrome also supports Bluetooth connections.  By allowing Chrome to connect to nearby Bluetooth devices, you can create use cases where a Physical Web signal leads to a web URL. The web URL leads to a page with support for Bluetooth connectivity.

(We should note that Bluetooth proximity and Bluetooth connectivity are two entirely different things!)

Google does a deep dive on this capability and provides libraries for Angular, Node and Polymer.

We can envision use cases where you approach a fitness machine in a local gym, it has a Physical Web logo, a Physical Web URL shows up when you search in Chrome, and the web page it takes you to can connect to the machine and read out heart rate or other information.

Go Chrome, or Go Physical Web?

This addition to the “proximity pathway” is great. But it adds another layer to an already confusing set of instructions for consumers.

One interesting question: when you’re creating an in-location sign/symbol or marker to let consumers know there is a nearby URL, should you flag it as Physical Web, or Chrome?

I’ve been wondering whether the Chrome logo wouldn’t be a better way to go. It bridges Android and iOS, is a recognized symbol, and is WAY easier to explain.

Because when the current instructions look like THIS, wouldn’t THIS be easier to understand?

Share Your Thoughts

Join our e-mail list for more on iBeacons, Eddystone, Physical Web and BLE. Join the conversation on Twitter, or connect with me on LinkedIn.

Have you engaged yet with a Physical Web URL via Chrome? What use cases do you think we’ll see? And do you think the Physical Web icon will be a driver of adoption, or will we see other ways to promote these new features?

Drop a comment below, or pop me a note on Twitter.

Content Creator or “Business Builder”? Drop Me a Line

On a side note, we’ve been partnering with content creators, publishers and entrepreneurs of all stripes. We’ve been building out tools to bring proximity channels to new markets. If you’d be interested in learning more, don’t hesitate to drop me a note – doug (at) fidgets.net . Our mission is to help content creators,  publishers, entrepreneurs and companies to build new revenue streams on the Internet of Things.

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Google, Beacons and the Black Box

When Google launched its response to the Apple iBeacon standard, it established itself as best-in-class for the field. But as it worked to integrate different initiatives within the company, it has left some notable gaps that hinder the development of effective user experiences.

It can be hard enough to understand all of the competing terms and standards. Sorting out whether your beacon should broadcast Eddystone, Physical Web or iBeacon signals is confusing enough.

But ending the process with a “black box” around your analytics makes it difficult to achieve what Google intends: useful end user experiences.

Background to Beacons

Before Google, all the hype was built around Apple’s iBeacon. The media (and developer community) often conflated software and hardware protocols. There was a perception that Apple was delivering ads based on proximity. Overall, there was both confusion over what iBeacon is or isn’t, and where Apple intended to take it.

Bluetooth Beacons First, it’s good to remember that beacons are all built on the same standard: Bluetooth LE. This is a protocol by Bluetooth for a low energy signal. The proximity standard is one of those protocols. This standard can be ‘interpreted’ in a number of different ways. Basically, Bluetooth provides a method for sending a radio signal in which a packet of data is included. How you use that packet is up to you.

iBeacon When Apple first launched its own standard for how the ‘packet’ should be encoded, it created confusion. iBeacon encompassed the standard for broadcasting, but it also came to include (at least in the popular imagination) the software tools for iOS developers, and the beacon itself (by being allowed manufacturers to use the iBeacon symbol).

Since its launch of iBeacon, Apple has done – well, nothing. Ahead of last year’s developer conference, they announced plans to integrate iBeacon with its iAd platform, giving brands the opportunity to deliver content to beacons without the need for an app.

But Apple pulled the plug on its iAd platform, and iBeacon (and the Apple approach to Bluetooth proximity) remained unchanged for yet another year.

Decoding Beacons the Google Way

Along came Google. When it launched its Eddystone standard, the press hailed it as an iBeacon competitor. And narrowly defined, it was. But this masked a much wider ecosystem. Google support for beacons was both more robust and more confusing.

It’s helpful to begin with understanding a few of the terms that apply in the Google ‘universe’ of beacons:

Physical Web This was the first unofficial entry from “Google” into the world of beacons. And I use the term in quotes because Physical Web is an open source standard which at first seemed loosely coupled with the company. Spearheaded by Scott Jenson, it is a standard protocol for broadcasting a URL in a beacon broadcast.

Browsers and operating systems which support “listening” for this URL can then display a web page.

Since its launch, Physical Web has expanded to include a number of methods (such as Wi-Fi Direct and SSDP) that can act as alternatives to physical beacons for broadcasting a URL.

Eddystone This was, perhaps, the true “Google response” to Apple iBeacon – “a protocol specification that defines a Bluetooth low energy (BLE) message format for proximity beacon messages.” The protocol is for an open format beacon.

It picked up where iBeacon stopped and addressed some of the key concerns with the Apple standard. By offering three different broadcast protocols, it allowed:

  • Secure broadcasts through Eddystone-EID (a companion framework) so that only authorized devices can ‘see’ your beacon
  • Additional flexibility within the broadcast packet, giving manufacturers some ‘room to maneuver’ compared to the Apple standard
  • Better support for beacon monitoring and management through Eddystone-TLM

Google Nearby Finally, Eddystone was launched with support for Google Nearby. This allows you to register your beacons with Google and present a notice to user’s phones, even if they don’t have an app.

And it’s on this last item that things get interesting. Because without the need for an app, you can now engage with users in a new way – by directing them to an app download page, or to an https web page of your choosing.

Google is Not One Thing

So Google launched Eddystone. It launches beacon support through Google Nearby. And it launches a collision of standards.

Let’s say you want to support iBeacon and “Google”. So you put out beacons that broadcast the Physical Web, iBeacon, and maybe AltBeacon because you have an app that uses it.

You register iBeacon with Google Nearby (huh? Yeah. You can even register an iBeacon to Google Nearby).

Now, your end user might be getting multiple notices – one via Google Nearby, one through your app, and one for Physical Web.

This confusion stems, in part, because different units within Google are developing in parallel – whether the Nearby team or Chrome.

Over time, Google started to coordinate all of these efforts, and has done a brilliant job iterating and improving the user experience. Now, your phone will sort out the Physical Web and Nearby signals and start to sift through them to avoid confusion.

Meanwhile, as a developer, brand or retailer, you’ll still need to sort out the differences between the 100s of Android phones – but that’s the pain of entry into the Android world. (With Samsung recently announcing its CloseBy standard, at least we’re seeing a relative match-up to the Nearby approach).

The Silent Notification

OK, so you’re still probably a bit confused. You’re not alone.

So let’s simplify things a bit:

  • You can now send a beacon notice even if your end user doesn’t have an app
  • This notice can link (via Physical Web, Google Nearby or…soon, Samsung CloseBy) to a web page or app download
  • This notice is silent. Which means the user needs to know to take an action (swiping down, for example, for the notification tray) to see your notice.

Users with Bluetooth on and widgets activated will always be able to see a silent notice. The Physical Web will always show in the notice tray if, for example, you’ve activated the Chrome widget on your iPhone.

But the notification is “silent”.

Except when it’s not.

Because with Google Nearby there’s a catch:

Android users near that device or beacon will see the message in the Nearby section of Google Settings, the Nearby Quick Settings tile will light up on supported devices, and messages that perform well will be raised as notifications.

And there’s the rub: “messages that perform well“.

Because – well, there’s no way to know.

The Data Gap

There’s a problem: Google doesn’t want to spam end users with unwanted messages. According to Google, their data clearly shows that inappropriate messages will ‘turn off’ end users. We can imply that this could lead to turning Bluetooth off, or otherwise disabling Physical Web or Google Nearby.

We get it. So, as a developer, you want to do your best – to test, say, multiple messages. To look at the data and tweak your messages so that it gets better. To improve your performance so that Google will ‘un-toggle’ your notices and present more of them to your end users.

But you’re fighting a battle with one hand tied behind your back:

  • You don’t know how many total devices were eligible for your message
  • You don’t know how many users “pulled down” and therefore don’t know what your hit rate is with a specific message
  • You might not have a good handle on how much physical foot traffic you get near your beacon

All you know is that 50 people (say) opened your page. You don’t know how many of those were from a “pull down”, how many were from a “raised notification”, or how many people even saw your message in the first place.

And to make matters even more difficult, there’s no way to test any of this in your development environment. You can’t easily “reset” your test phone so that it acts like a naive user. Google interprets development and production the same way via Nearby.

We’re working in the dark.

And there’s no easy answer.

Is There a Solution?

With Google I/O approaching in May, I half suspect that Google will monetize Nearby – letting you pay to raise your notification in a more consistent way. Maybe they’ll connect up to Google Analytics or Firebase Analytics.

But even if they don’t there’s no easy way for Google to solve this black box issue without raising a host of other issues.

For example, if you were to give a total count of ‘eligible devices’ wouldn’t this open up the chance to snoop on foot traffic and device counts? Couldn’t you then place a beacon inside a competitor store and use this data to snoop on their location foot traffic data?

But to start, developers and Nearby users should at least be provided with some simple tools to help them improve the end user experience. Some baseline data would be a start:

  • When you launch a Nearby campaign with beacons, what is the starting percentage of users who will see your “raised” notification?
  • What is the maximum value this will go up to?
  • Can Nearby provide the capability of A/B testing messages and report back on which message included a “boost” to raised notifications?
  • Can we get access to “percentage of raised notifications” even if it doesn’t give us numbers?

Providing a better method for toggling Nearby beacons to “development” along with better instructions on how to treat a development phone as a naive user would also be a big improvement.

Google is doing it right – they’re making sure that users aren’t spammed, that we don’t see a backlash to beacons, and that the different notices are ‘streamed’ effectively from the different protocols.

But to get to the next step, Google should provide developers with some sort of feedback to help them improve the effectiveness of messages. This type of two-way partnership will be key to the continued uptake of beacons.

Share Your Thoughts

Join our e-mail list for more on iBeacons, Eddystone, Physical Web and BLE. Join the conversation on Twitter, or connect with me on LinkedIn.

How do you assess the effectiveness of Nearby or Physical Web projects? How do you assess the data? What would you like to see Google provide (data or other tools) to help improve the end user experience? Drop a comment below, or pop me a note on Twitter.

 

 

 

 

BeaconControl: Open Source Beacon Management

Launching this week, BeaconControl is an open source platform for managing proximity experiences using Bluetooth LE beacons.

It promises to help extend the stack of tools available to developers, organizations and brands and allow for more seamless integration with existing systems.

“The platform eliminates the need to focus on low level issues such as hardware integration, security and beacon deployment,” Marley Fabisiewicz, Founder of BeaconControl, tells me.

His Warsaw software agency Upnext has developed BeaconControl. The open source platform includes a suite of software tools which includes:

  • SDKs for iOS and Android
  • An open source Web management tools based on Ruby on Rails (with a RESTful API), and
  • A free mobile app for beacon deployment and set up.

The company is partnering with Kontakt.io to provide the first “deep integration” with the physical beacon itself.

This allows developers and organizations to physically configure a Kontakt beacon and have that configuration link to the BeaconControl dashboard.

Why Beacon Management is Needed

When Apple launched support for Bluetooth LE proximity detection through its iBeacon specification (and accompanying iOS developer tools), brands and organizations often struggled to both understand and implement beacons into their mobile experiences:

  • You needed beacons. Most of the beacons on the market came with back-end management systems. Some of those systems were required if you wanted to use that vendor’s beacon. Gimbal was an early example of a beacon company whose back-end system (while rich and robust) was what you were really buying when you bought one of their beacons.
  • You could use third-party management systems. If you chose beacons that didn’t require that you use their management systems you could turn to one of the dozens of start-ups offering proximity management platforms.
  • You could choose to build your own proximity management system. This could be a costly proposition. It came with the added challenge that the technology was relatively new, support for Android was still in its early days, and best practices for user experiences were yet to be established.

With Google announcing more robust support for proximity and beacon detection and putting their weight behind the Physical Web (through the open source Eddystone protocol), the management of beacons has become even more complex.

And while Google itself now offers a degree beacon fleet management services and basic tools for delivering content, a developer or business still needs to think about how their beacon infrastructure will support the end user experience across a myriad of devices – from Android phones to Apple Watch.

Building an Open Source Beacon Management Community

BeaconControl hopes to help accelerate the proximity industry by making its tools available under an open source license, and to encourage developers and engineers to support its development.

Fabisiewicz tells me that developer involvement will help build momentum for BeaconControl:

We have already entered great partnerships with the Silicon Allee campus in Berlin and the NewLab in New York City to develop sustainable, “technology enabled workspaces” based on BeaconControl. We are in talks with various startups and corporations who have expressed interest in BeaconControl. But at the moment we would love to see developers start using the platform and contribute to the movement.

Developers can check out the BeaconControl code on GitHub and contribute to improving the web-side management dashboard.

For the more technically-minded, Fabisiewicz explains the architecture:

The core stack is Ruby on Rails and that’s how it will stay in the future as we deeply believe in Ruby on Rails.

In terms of mobile integration we are already providing iOS SDK and Android SDK is coming soon, so the mobile mobile landscape is currently covered.

Beacon Control is designed with Service Oriented Architecture in mind, so that any technology stack can integrate it and use it through the REST APIs. Depending on community feedback, we will consider developing wrappers in other languages.

What Does It Mean for Businesses?

For organizations looking to deploy beacons, you need more than just a device. You need a way to manage the interactions that go with a beacon.

You can choose a beacon provider who has accompanying dashboard and management tools, but risk vendor lock-in. Or you can work with a “platform” (from Urban Airship to any of the dozens of proximity providers who specialize in the field).

These approaches have pros and cons: from cost efficiency and speed-to-market, to being able to rely on vendors whose sole purpose is often thinking about and developing for proximity.

But if you have the resources, or if you have the need to integrate proximity campaigns into existing systems, developing your own beacon solution has often seemed a viable approach.

Now, you’ll have the option of using an open source library to get your project started.

Developers Unite!

If it can involve a larger group of developers, BeaconControl could potentially become an emerging standard for proximity management.

With a new generation of sensors and beacons on the horizon, this open source approach can give the industry a leg-up on its ability to respond to technical change.

Its founder tells me that:

We are at the very beginning of proximity technology and we think that BeaconControl can evolve into a platform that supports various types of sensors in the future. Currently Mesh beacons are a very interesting technology, they can turn the current generation of location-broadcasting beacons into a two-way, Net-connected network. Generally we think that proximity technology has the potential to change the world, but it will take time and a lot of effort like with mobile payments.

BeaconControl might also be a sign of things to come. As the industry shakes out, more companies may choose to open source parts of their technology in order to focus on other areas: consulting, analytics or infrastructure management.

For Upnext, BeaconControl is the perfect fit for an agency that focuses on innovation and mobile experiences.

As Fabisiewicz tells me, BeaconControl opens up a range of possibilities for his company:

First and foremost, we are aiming to create a community that builds the physical web and the IOT. We are trying to give innovators and technologists a headstart with our platform. We will eventually make money by consulting with companies to integrate BeaconControl into their applications. We are also thinking of marketplace (like an app strore) for BeaconControl where the entire community can distribute their add-ons for BeaconControl and monetize them.

BeaconControl will help to kickstart new forms of innovation in the proximity industry and will attract developers who are inspired by working together to create new standards and best practices. It represents a milestone on the beacon industry and is, perhaps, a sign of things to come.

Share Your Thoughts

Join our e-mail list for more on iBeacons, Eddystone and BLE. Join the conversation on Twitter, or connect with me on LinkedIn.

Is BeaconControl what you were waiting for? How do you think an open source proximity management platform will impact the industry? Will start-ups who sell proprietary solutions need to consider their own open source strategies? Drop a comment below, or pop me a note on Twitter.

The Future of Beacon Technology | Guest Post

Guest Post by Jakub Krzych, CEO and Co-Founder of Estimote


Jakub Krzych is CEO and Co-Founder of Estimote, Inc.

In this (epic) guest post, he provides his thoughts and insights into the future of Web and mobile apps, the introduction of Google Eddystone and beacon support, and his vision for what it takes to bring digital context to the real world.

Mobile & web apps and the future of beacon technologies

It’s been almost two years since Apple launched iBeacon, its own beacon format, and kicked off the contextual computing revolution. For the first time in computer history, a massively distributed and popular consumer device such as an iPhone was able to sense micro-location information broadcast by tiny, battery-powered radio devices.

The most important innovation was removing all of the friction in user interactions. Before iBeacon, it was possible to use QR codes and pass contextual information to the phone, but it was inconvenient: pulling out the phone, opening a QR code scanning app, focusing the camera on the code, etc. With beacon technologies, users just need to enter a beaconified location and a pre-programmed action will automatically appear on the screen—frictionless.

Apple made this technology elegant, privacy-oriented and straightforward. They anticipated billions of devices advertising their presence, thus they designed the iBeacon format to consist of 20 bytes containing a static identifier (UUID + Major + Minor)—enough to number all the objects on earth.

When a phone discovers the beacon and picks up the identifier, it triggers an app and the action assigned with that beacon. That is the most beautiful part of this elegant design: an app searching for a specific beacon is required. That means this technology is opt-in only. Apple knew that powerful and frictionless experiences might also put users at risk of being spammed or tracked without their knowledge. That’s why users have to explicitly opt in by simply downloading their favorite store or brand app. By doing that, they allow app creators to push notifications to their phone or to use location services.

When a user feels that the app shouldn’t use her location or that there’s not much value behind the app, she removes it. That is actually why many app developers concentrate on delivering amazing value to users.

If a user boards a train, arrives at the destination, and gets a notification with the ticket automatically charged to her credit card, that would be a magical experience. Or if she arrives at the airport and the app says exactly where to go and she is checked in by walking to the gate, that would be an amazing frictionless passenger experience.

However, it’s one thing to broadcast a static identifier and trigger hard-coded actions and another to engage with users through dynamic app content.

When a user walks into a furniture showroom and approaches the sofa she likes the most, she can see the picture, description, or price on her smartphone. But this data might change over time. In order to maintain it, developers might either hard-code all the new data into the app and push the new version to the App Store, or the app might simply fetch the data from the server by passing beacon identifiers to CMS solutions, where marketers could keep the content up-to-date.

Eddystone by Google and the mobile web

But what if we want to interact with many brands and many airports or retail stores? Do we need to download all these apps? Not really.

Google recently released a different beacon format called “Eddystone.” Unlike iBeacon, it doesn’t broadcast only an identifier, but also a pre-programmed website URL. So instead of having many different apps fetching contextual data, we might have just one, and it can simply be the web browser.


A similar shift happened in the early ‘90s. There were many standalone apps exchanging data with servers using different data formats. There was, for example, the FTP protocol and the FTP client app, IRC and its client, Usenet, Gopher, Mail, etc. Over time, most of these services moved to the web and were consumed by the internet browser, which could run on any computer, any processor architecture, and any screen.

It was faster and cheaper for developers to design, build, distribute, and update web apps. Broadband and modern browsers made it impossible for users to distinguish the so-called Web 2.0 apps such as Gmail, Google Maps, and Google Docs from their standalone competitors like Outlook or Excel.

That trend is not visible in the mobile world yet. Most of the popular services such as Snapchat, Facebook, or games still run as standalone native apps. It’s because of performance: native apps can run much faster, they optimize battery consumption, and they have access to low-level peripherals such as built-in sensors, cameras, memory, etc.

Over time, the defragmentation of mobile devices, platforms, and screen sizes might again result in a shift towards web apps, especially if browsers become faster and gain more access to low-level peripherals. Google, for example, recently released a Chrome browser for iOS that can natively scan for URLs broadcast by beacons. This might become the promise of a single app talking to many beacons.

Web app or native mobile

One app installed on the phone and responding to all beacons might be an elegant solution to the app distribution problem.

Nevertheless, the most progressive brands and retailers, with their innovative mobile teams, will keep investing in their own loyalty or in-store-experience apps. They know that the only way to have  full control over the data, branding, and end-to-end user experience is via standalone apps installed on consumer devices.

They also know that the only way to convince users to download these native apps is to provide them with amazing value. Beacons help with that, by removing the friction and making apps smarter.

UI and UX designers can leverage beacons to understand the microlocation or context of their users. Also, by using additional data from sensors, such as motion or temperature, user interfaces can be simplified or sometimes completely reduced.

Beaconified apps help their users focus on the main goals behind the apps and can impact important metrics such as engagement, usage, or retention.

Scaling beacon deployments

The typical app beaconification process starts with experimentation and prototyping. A proof-of-concept app is created with just a few beacon dev kits. Pitched internally, it can often attract attention from product people and decision-makers. Once an app is budgeted and the mobile team allocated, the proper app development process starts. After few weeks or months of app development, beacons are deployed to the production environment.

For airports, shopping malls, or huge retailers beaconifying enormous spaces and thousands of locations, deployment might be a logistics nightmare. They will most likely optimize for the simplicity of the installation and maintenance as well as the cost of that operation. It’s easy to calculate that a workday of deployment crew to complete the installation, configuration, and testing, multiplied by thousands of stores, can result in multimillion-dollar bill.

That is the main reason it’s unlikely that large beacon deployments will install beacons that require power cords, manual configuration, and floor-plan assignments. Even tiny details such as the lack of a built-in adhesive layer can impact the efficiency of the deployment.

On batteries and hardware upgrades

For the same reasons, it is unlikely that retailers will replace batteries in their beacons. The cost of that operation would be higher than installing new ones.

Once installed, beacons should last long enough that they can be replaced with the new generation: technology cycles in that industry move fast. Last year, Bluetooth SIG released two updates of their BLE standard and one of them requires completely new hardware for both the beacon and the mobile phone. So three-year-old beacons will be obsolete anyway.

However, software or hardware upgrades shouldn’t affect applications running on top of this infrastructure. The most progressive beacon companies will not only optimize the cost of deployment but also the simplicity of the migration.

For all of these reasons, it’s clear that retailers won’t install multiple beacons broadcasting exclusive data formats for different mobile platforms or apps. We shouldn’t expect that there will be beacons only for Microsoft, Google, or Facebook. It just won’t happen.

There’s nothing preventing beacons from broadcasting as many packets as we want. They’re just tiny computers, after all.. These packets can also consist of whatever data we want. That’s why any customer who purchased Estimote Beacons in the past can simply update them over the air and turn on an Eddystone packet or switch to iBeacon at any time. No new hardware is required. At Estimote, we are committed to supporting whatever the popular future beacon format is.

We expect rapid development of beacon technologies, new formats, sensor integrations, and security updates. That is why we advise our customers to choose a beacon partner wisely and to make sure purchased beacons can be frequently and effortlessly updated with new firmware.

Remote fleet management

An elegant and easy fleet management technique including firmware updates isn’t a huge challenge. Each and every beacon is a tiny computer and can connect to phones or other beacons. It can also exchange configuration data, including firmware.

That is why at Estimote we do not have additional devices or hubs to configure or upgrade our beacons. All the beacons can be upgraded over the air, and we use technology already built-in to the phones. When users visit different locations and their apps interact with beacons, they can simply connect and update beacon configuration or firmware in the background: it’s just a few kilobytes, so there is no impact on usage. And it’s 100% secure and respects the user’s privacy—no personal data are collected or transferred.

Because of the operation cost argument mentioned before, there’s no point in installing additional hardware to remotely manage beacons. Whenever beacons are installed, users with compatible apps should be in the proximity. After all, if there are no users around, why are beacons there?

On security and risks

Part of the fleet management routine should also be security updates. Many retailers or airports investing in beacon infrastructures are very sensitive to any potential vulnerabilities of beacon networks.

We can easily imagine airport passengers receiving notifications about cheaper flights to the same destination from a competitor airline exactly when they check in at the gate. Or, consumers visiting retail stores might receive coupons from E-commerce apps detecting their location in specific departments, causing a showrooming effect.

All of this could happen if competing apps sense the presence of beacons and remember their static identifiers. Since beacons are tiny computers, they can dynamically compute these identifiers so that only authenticated apps could decode them. This is exactly how we implemented Secure UUID mode. Our customers who want to protect their networks can simply turn on Secure UUID, and competing apps won’t be able to easily resolve the location.

Of course, every computer technology is hackable. But even if that happened, the risk is still very low, because there’s an additional layer of security: the Apple App Store approval process. Apple would never agree to publish in the App Store software malware that would basically have access to information it shouldn’t. These days, App Stores are the main distribution channels for apps, so respected app creators won’t risk dealing with Apple on that front.

Infrastructure sharing and innovation acceleration

Once the network of beacons is built and secured, there might also be opportunities to share it with other app creators. That is why we built a feature we call “beacon infrastructure sharing” on top of our cloud and beacons. Our customers can allow any app to take an advantage of the infrastructure and the context established in the venue.

We see retailers enabling different brands to use beacon infrastructure so their apps might trigger notifications when customers visit a partner retail environment. The same with airports, which might share different terminals or gates with different airline or duty-free apps.

We should expect that in the future, locations that are attractive and offer value to visiting consumers will sell access to their beacon infrastructures, via exactly the same model we’ve seen on the web with popular websites and ads. If someone creates a website with high traffic, they can make part of that website available for banners, cookies, or widgets as long as those components don’t confuse users. Otherwise, that website would lose them quickly.

With the security component and infrastructure sharing, any beacon network owner can invite third-party apps and offer campaigns for a specific period of time. For exactly the same reason that the visual language of layouts and banners have been used on the web by agencies and web owners, there must be similar visual language to manage campaigns and interactions in physical venues. That language has been already created: it’s called “floor plans and maps” and has been used by retailers, airports, museums, and their suppliers for years.

Indoor location with beacons

Being able to quickly deploy hundreds of beacons and see them immediately on a floor plan has been always a long-term goal for Estimote. Every day we get closer to that vision because of our heavy investment in beacon-based indoor location.

We’ve built an amazing data science team that has created robust indoor location algorithms and SDKs that anyone can build into their apps to achieve an accuracy of locating people and their phones inside a building to within just a few meters.

In order to make this extremely simple, we invented an auto-mapping tool. Even if the deployment crew doesn’t have a floor plan, they can map the space automatically using our Indoor Location App from the App Store. They just need to walk around the room once. The mapped space and beacon locations are automatically saved in the cloud, where they can be edited, managed, or shared with third-party apps.

There is also an analytics component venue owners can use to better understand the behavior of their users in their locations. The RESTful API makes it extremely simple for integrations or deeper insights.

The privacy issue here is solved by the same opt-in mechanism explained before. If users are offered strong value such as wayfinding, asset tracking, etc., they will download an app with a built-in Indoor Location SDK and explicitly agree to be located.

Knowing the exact location of people and being able to resolve their context is one thing, but having more insight into their interaction with the objects around them is another. Both of these components can help to design amazing context-aware mobile apps and experiences. That is why at Estimote we have also invested heavily in sensors built into beacons and invented “nearables.”

Using tiny beacons in the form factor of stickers, users can turn ordinary things into smart, connected objects. These objects can broadcast into the air not only their presence, but additional metadata such as temperature, motion, orientation, and state duration. This is all possible because of our very own connectionless Nearable Packet, which we introduced last year long before Google started to work on Eddystone.

Apps for the physical world

If you combine all of this—beacon infrastructure sharing, easy-to-use, and precise indoor location, plus nearables—you will very quickly understand where this is going. Finally, all these components make it possible to build real apps on top of physical locations that are full of objects. It’s a tremendous shift from apps designed for phones to apps designed for airports, retails stores, or museums.

For example, Estimote apps designed for one museum can be “run” on top of any museum that is “compatible.” A scavenger app built for one retail store can be scaled to thousands of stores. That is the long-term vision behind beacon technologies: to make it extremely simple to develop, configure, deploy, and distribute apps for physical locations.

At Estimote, we have been executing that vision since the day we launched this project. We interact with many pioneers in the community, and we are very proud of their help in making this technology better every day.

We are extremely excited that all the major players, including Apple and Google, are fully on board with beacons, and we look forward to seeing what comes next and how contextual technologies will evolve. The most exciting part is the fact this is still at an early stage, with many innovations and pioneer inventions ahead.

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Come on – let’s give a shout-out to Jakub. Epic post – and lots to think about. What do you think he gets right (or wrong) about the future of mobile and web apps in the era of Eddystone and iBeacon?

Google Loves Apple (In a World of Beacons)


 

The launch of Eddystone by Google has, at long last, addressed a challenge in creating proximity experiences with beacons. Namely, that the software tools for beacon detection and interaction were less robust for Android development than for Apple devices.

The media narrative, as always, paints the move by Google as a showdown between Eddystone and iBeacon.

Mashable calls Eddystone a rival, Ars Technica announces that iBeacon needs to move over because Eddystone is a fighter, and Tech Republic concludes that it has clear advantages in the showdown with Apple.

Now, you can’t blame the media. It makes good copy.

If Google launched some kind of self-driving toilet paper the media would call it a rival to the iPad, siphoning off valuable screen time from its arch enemy in Cupertino.

And while there’s a broader truth to the Apple v Google narrative (which I’ll get to in a minute), the truth is that the move by Google has made life easier for brands, retailers, developers and device manufacturing companies.

What Your Clients Need to Know

If you work in mobile development you’ll know that the last thing your clients need to hear is that there’s yet more fragmentation – between Android devices, between Apple and Android.

The good news is that, at the simplest level, Google’s announcement of the Eddystone beacon format (and the accompanying development tools) means that we can now create beacon experiences for both Android and Apple devices in a way that assures a higher level of confidences that the experiences will be on par.

Better yet, Eddystone has added a few tricks to how beacons work that will benefit both Apple and Android apps. These tricks include the ability to embed beacon management functions inside your app (instead of needing to rely on some type of admin app or cloud beacon), a promise of increased beacon security, and the ability to link beacons natively to web URLs.

By launching an open specification and leveraging the capacity of beacons to interleave multiple signals, brands, retailers and venues can get the best of both worlds:

  • Android apps that respond as fluidly to beacons as Apple apps
  • Access to new beacon features across both platforms
  • No need to buy new beacons – especially if your hardware provider is one of Google’s preferred manufacturers (and we note that almost all of them are our own!). Just update your firmware and you’re good to go.

There’s No App For That

The second part of the media narrative about Eddystone is its capacity to deliver a URL in place of a unique identifier. The promise is that on Android, you’ll be able to deliver messages without an app.

Part of this promise will be reliant on what Google releases with Android M so it’s too early to judge how deep this promise will go. We’ve long speculated that the secret war horse for Google will be Chrome – a trojan horse on Apple devices that could conceivably contain beacon detection and help Google bypass the gatekeepers in Cupertino.

Regardless, the capability of reaching consumers without an app isn’t confined to Google.

Apple has been using Passbook to trigger beacon interactions and will be extending this through Offers, a new iAd “wrapper” on Apple Wallet. We assume that this will allow brands to target iAds based on location and allow the delivery of Wallet Offers (similar to Apple passes) which embed beacon detection (as previously available).

So while it’s a compelling value proposition – the ability to bypass apps entirely, it’s not confined to Google.

Who Owns The Experience?

It’s when we look beyond the beacon that the Google v Apple narrative starts to make a bit more sense.

Both Apple and Google give you tools to register your “place”. Both want to help you map your indoor location. Both want to provide “contextual experiences” through Siri, Google Now, and search.

And both want to serve ads:

  • Google wants to use all the data it can get to serve better (and more) ads across more platforms (including iOS)
  • Apple wants to generally keep the data anonymous but still wants to make money through its iAd platform.

Apple’s main focus is the user experience, and we can expect to see more and more tools to integrate beacons into payments, Apple Wallet, in-home connectivity, and location-based context. Google’s main focus is giving users better and better free tools and applications but in the larger service of ad revenue.

Neither approach is bad for brands or venues. But each provides strategic pros and cons – from sharing your data about your customers with Google through the lack of access to individual user data on the Apple platform.

But these trade-offs and decisions have nothing to do with the beacon. The choice to integrate that beacon, to make Google aware of its presence, to integrate it with Google Now (with the benefit of “app-less” consumer interactions but with the cost of providing Google data about your customers) are strategic ones.

As a retailer, you’re faced with the same questions you’ve already struggled with: who owns the data about what happens in your store, and are the trade-offs worth it?

But, again, those questions have nothing to do with the base function of the beacon, and are supplemental decisions about how far you want to go with Eddystone.

For now, it’s enough to know that beacons just got better, and users of both Apple and Android devices will benefit from the innovation.

Share Your Thoughts

Join our e-mail list for more on iBeacons and BLE. Join the conversation on Twitter, or connect with me on LinkedIn.

What do you think? Google has clearly done Apple one better with Eddystone. But is it really a “threat”? How will you use Eddystone?

Beacons Meet WiFi: Cisco Meraki Has Its Eye on Connected Spaces

Bluetooth LE beacons have shifted beyond prototypes and pilots into large-scale distribution. But this shift has brought us bumping up against the downside to a beacon’s elegance and simplicity. Because if a beacon is a relatively simple (and dumb) device, how do you intelligently manage them at scale?

One company thinks it has a solution. Meraki, a division of Cisco, launched a WiFi end point which can both act as a beacon and monitor devices in the area, report back to a cloud-based dashboard, and allow you to manage and shape WiFi traffic at the same time.

I spoke recently to the Meraki team. Adam Weis and Simon Tompson gave me an overview of their system and approach. For a company that’s managing massive networks of WiFi end points (70,000 hotel rooms in one case), they know a thing or two about fleet management.

And as beacons shift into distribution at scale, their approach will both help relieve some of the pain of beacon monitoring while offering the possibly larger advantage of being able to shape WiFi traffic and monitor WiFi networks from the same intuitive dashboard.

Beacons Call Home

The beauty of iBeacon (the trademarked term by Apple for its preferred configuration for the open standard of the Bluetooth Smart devices) was its simplicity. Apple did the heavy lifting in thinking about how beacons could be configured, provided easy-to-use software tools to help you create apps, and then stood back while the media branded the beacon industry with the iBeacon brush.

The move by Apple helped to accelerate an industry. By opening up support for beacon detection (and using your phone or tablet to broadcast as a beacon), we finally had a single standard that would work across all the major phone platforms. And by making the tools simple to use, it spurred a wave of innovation and testing which took advantage of the fact that a beacon doesn’t actually do very much.

Like any radio transmitter, a beacon transmits a signal. The signal contains a small packet of data (which also helps protect battery usage on both the beacon and the user’s phone), and that data includes unique ID numbers, some power and battery data, and a signal strength – all of which are used to identify which beacon you’ve detected and how far away you are.

But as the industry rapidly matured, this simplicity also started to show some cracks.

There was a scramble to make developing beacon detection for Android as simple as it was for Apple. And with Apple willing to enforce its trademarks and proprietary specifications, we started seeing separate beacon broadcasting specifications emerge, with a better-known example being the AltBeacon standard.

Beacon manufacturers emerged and took advantage of how relatively simple it was to build a beacon. But their simplicity came at a cost: it’s easy to create a beacon, configure it, put in a coin cell battery, and attach it to your wall.

But the beacons didn’t do much more than their original purpose. They broadcast a signal but they didn’t receive anything. If you wanted to reconfigure them or monitor their battery you needed to use an app while standing next to the beacon.

Your beacons, in other words, had no way to call home.

Managing Beacons at Scale

For a retailer, the idea that you’d deploy thousands of beacons across hundreds of locations and have no simple way to manage or monitor the devices without sending out staff seemed like a non-starter.

In the early days of the industry, more than one beacon company told me that managing your beacons wasn’t necessary: the devices were so cheap you could just throw them out when they died. But try telling that to a national retailer (or even a large museum!). Because the cost of training staff and sending them out to pop a new beacon on the wall was an instant deterrent to large installations.

The solutions included payloads embedded in user apps, extending the battery life through improved beacon performance, embedding beacons in light bulbs, or plugging them in. By making beacons last longer, the need to replace them would decrease.

But it was clear that beacon fleet management would quickly become a differentiator for the companies that could manage it well. Companies like Netclearance Systems launched a cloud management system and Kontakt.io recently launched its Cloud Beacon.

These solutions relied on placing another device in a store or venue: a sort of “hub” which could both call home and send/receive data, and could connect with beacons in the area in order to update their firmware, change their IDs, or monitor their batteries or performance.

In a World of WiFi, We Have An Endpoint

But Meraki thought it had a more elegant solution. Because why add another device to your location when you already need a box for the most pervasive endpoints available: WiFi.

The company has changed the game for how institutions manage WiFi infrastructure – moving us from the dark ages of what often looked like a command line interfaces to an elegant cloud-based solution that had a lot in common with the most intuitive dashboards available.

This was industrial scale WiFi management with a dashboard your mother might even love.

They took the pain out of managing WiFi endpoints. Organizations ranging from universities to hotel chains deploy, manage, monitor, secure and shape traffic for often widely distributed systems – and with Meraki do so in an intuitive way. (They were so successful that Cisco snapped them up).

So Meraki had a simple premise: since you’re already monitoring your WiFi with their endpoints, why not also use that same dashboard to monitor nearby beacons?

And while they were at it, they threw in the capacity of their WiFi box to ACT as a beacon – a boon to a smaller location that might not need a beacon in every aisle but just wants to send a beacon message when you arrive at the front door.

Their solution solved a simple problem: can I easily monitor all the beacons in the area, keep an eye on their batteries and other signals, and do something useful with the data?

Adam Weis, a brilliant guy and someone who helped drive a lot of the thinking behind the Meraki approach, explains:

Is Monitoring and Configuring the Same Thing?

The Meraki system is simple. It has an incredibly elegant and easy-to-use interface. It not only broadcasts as a beacon, but lets you monitor for ALL Bluetooth-enabled devices in its region:

It helps answer one of the more pressing challenges of fleet management: making sure your beacons are still working and that their batteries haven’t run out. By also monitoring other devices in the region, Meraki is providing a richer data set. I can now compare, for example, the number of total devices and then cross-tabulate that data to the number of beacon “app impressions”.

Meraki can’t, however, update a beacon’s firmware or update their UUIDs. To do that, you need to be able to “pair” with the beacon and the pairing is usually handled by tools provided by the beacon manufacturer. In many cases this might not be an issue – but an ideal scenario would be for Meraki to also partner with beacon manufacturers to allow institutions to also PAIR with the beacons via the Meraki dashboard.

In the meantime, it’s where solutions like the Kontakt Cloud Beacon come in – systems to manage your fleet of beacons and their ID numbers, but without the advantage of being a full WiFi endpoint.

WiFi + Beacon Is A Big Win for Many Use Cases

But let’s face it – in many cases, Meraki is enough. A library, for example, probably doesn’t need to swap the UUIDs of its beacons very often and firmware updates aren’t usually deployed, or rarely. And Meraki offers the advantage that it takes care of another key challenge in creating a ‘connected space’ – you need to manage WiFi access as well, shape WiFi traffic, and would prefer to do so in an intuitive way.

If your WiFi network can also ACT as a beacon and monitor the small fleet you have set up in your hotel lobby, say, then you’re getting two for the price of one: an intuitive WiFi management tool, a beacon, and the ability to monitor any additional beacons you place in your space.

Where Technologies Intersect

But there might be something more profound at play.

Because as beacons have shifted into larger deployments, they’ve also shifted into being just one of several technologies being used to ‘digitize physical space’. And it intrigues me to think about a future in which beacon detection can be combined with network monitoring and access management and then be used to shape new kinds of experiences in a location.

Today, you drop by a Starbucks and hop on a WiFi network. But in the future, a combination of beacon interactions and WiFi access might be combined to create new kinds of experiences.

We call beacons the “gateway drug to the Internet of Things”. They’ve been easy to understand. And they open our eyes to a world in which physical space is a new digital touch point. As they start to intersect with other technologies their management will become more complex but the types of interactions we can enable will also become more elegant, more innovative, and hopefully more useful to the end user.

Meraki has shown us one way that beacon technology will start to intersect with others. As we create the digital fabrics of physical space, it’s an early indicator that the beacon era is just getting started.

Share Your Thoughts

Join our e-mail list for more on iBeacons and BLE. Join the conversation on Twitter, or connect with me on LinkedIn.

What other technologies will beacons intersect with? What are the use cases for WiFi and beacon monitoring and where do you see Meraki fitting into your plans? Drop a line below.

Apple Watch: Tracking Customers with Digital Ads | Guest Post

The much-anticipated Apple Watch is set for an early 2015 (sometime in March) release date. Now, we are all aware of its health-monitoring features but many mobile marketers believe that its real potentials lie elsewhere. The smart watch from Apple is actually good at putting digital ads on your potential customers’ wrists, helping you to better reach your target audience(s) or at least that’s what The Wall Street Journal says.

It all began in the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas when mobile-marketing company TapSense released their Apple Watch ad-buying service. It showed how businesses can deliver targeted ads to their potential customers, using this smart wearable device. It excited many marketers with its abilities like detecting customers approaching or walking past a store and then sending an ad directly to their wrists. However, there are likely to be certain issues about it as many fear that it might risk alienating those customers.

Besides, Apple didn’t make any comment regarding this or how advertisers can leverage on iWatch to reach out to their target audiences. But there is no denying that Apple Watch offers some potential for advertisers and to explore them, we need to take a look at some of its technologies and features.

Track Users Via BLE Technology

Apple Watch will be able to track its users via Bluetooth signals as they walk around.” – Tim Cook

Apple’s CEO confirmed this in an interview given to Bloomberg sometime in September, last year. This is something a lot of Apple observers have been suspecting for long. But after the CEO publicly accepted this last year, a lot of speculations have been going on.

This wearable device from Apple use Bluetooth low energy or BLE technology and wearers, therefore, can be tracked through Bluetooth signals coming from stores, shopping malls and other real-world locations. To understand this, let’s have a closer look at the technology.

It features Bluetooth 4.0, a localized wireless signal system with the help of which one can receive or transmit data from any nearby device. Bluetooth low energy, which is the signal released by beacons, is significant for two reasons:

  1. Firstly for transmitting radio waves and unlike Wi-Fi or mobile signals, these waves can penetrate physical barriers like walls.
  2. Secondly, the battery consumption of BLE is negligible in comparison to the classic Bluetooth.

Apple Watch use BLE technology, which means the device will scan for such signals and wake up relevant apps when it comes within range of a beacon. Now, this is the opportunity marketers want to leverage upon.

Wearers will be tracked via BLE signals and when they are within the range users will receive alerts from nearby businesses. For example, if you are near a Michael Kors store, an iOS app on your iWatch may suggest you to check out their latest collections.

This indeed creates hyper-localized advertising opportunities for marketers, which is too good to overlook. However, Apple Watch’s tracking mechanism is likely to be similar to mechanism used in iPhones, which is little-understood by most of us.

iBeacons to Send Location-Based Offers

Beacon technology changed the way retailers interacted with shoppers. It allows retailers collect consumer data like never before and trigger customer’s smartphone apps with location-based features such as store maps, targeted coupons, and hands-free payments to lure them to their stores.

Apple Watch is integrated with iBeacon technology that will allow the device to constantly scan for Bluetooth devices in nearby locations. As the device identifies a beacon, it will wake up relevant apps on the wearers’ watch, even if it’s closed and not running in the background, to send relevant data and ads including location-specific ads.

Consider the example of Michael Kors cited previously. The app will not only send data about their latest collections, but also about special discounts and offers currently running on the particular store.

Marsh Supermarkets, mid-western grocery chain is already preparing to integrate its in-store networks of iBeacons with Apple Watch. The company is working with inMarket to roll out its system before the launch of iWatch. The plan is to fully integrate Marsh’s loyalty program with this wearable device in order to quick-hit promotions and ads. It will again open up new opportunities for marketers to reach out to their potential customers and engage them for retention purposes.

Apple Pay works on iWatch

Apple has already announced that Apple Pay, its NFC mobile wallet service, will work on iWatch. Users can pay at checkout with a simple, quick swipe. This means, from giving details of stores (like store map) and products and offering coupons to making payments at checkouts, Apple Watch can play a great role in providing seamless shopping experience to buyers. Better yet, they are all available with a mere glance at your wrist; there is no need to take out your handheld devices.

However, to tap such huge potentials small businesses need to have proper setups to accept this form of e-payment.

This combination of Bluetooth, iBeacon and NFC is what makes Apple Watch special and innovative. The same wireless transmitting system is also found in iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus. Though previous Apple devices were trackable via iBeacons, it was only possible if the user had their Bluetooth switched on. Besides, all the iBeacon could do (if it detected a device) was sent a signal to alert the user like the Michael Kors example (product information or offers and discounts). However, there was no guarantee that there would be a conversion (sale) attributed to the system.

By combining Bluetooth, iBeacon and NFC, Apple took a step towards closing the loop. An Apple Watch wearer can now receive a signal from a beacon to trigger an app and send relevant data and if the user is motivated enough, he/she can complete the purchase using Apple Pay.

On a Final Note

These technologies, combined together, can provide limitless scopes for marketers. Besides, they will help in generating a ton of consumer data and help marketers analyze their efforts such as which types of offers and promotions work best and how successful the tracking is.

On the downside, Apple has hardly mentioned any detail about ads, even though the iWatch’s SDK is out. A point to note: Apple already has iAd, its own advertising platform. Many are therefore assuming if the tech giant would make ads on Apple Watch exclusive to their iAd platform.

However, these are mostly assumptions as there is no official confirmation available about Apple Watch ad integration and we are just making some educated guesses.

Guest Author Bio

Jaykishan Panchal is a content marketer at MoveoApps, an apple watch app development company. He enjoys writing about Technology, marketing & industry trends. He is tech enthusiast and love to explore new stuff. You can follow him on Twitter @jaypanchal8.