iBeacon and Why Apple Streaming Music Might Be Free

Apple can make its streaming music service free. And it’s because of iBeacon.

The New York Times reports that industry analysts are predicting a tough climb for the company’s new streaming music service. Apple will need to shift from the pay-to-download model of iTunes toward the all-you-can-eat-buffet of streaming music. And in doing so, it will need to get the support of a music industry that can now turn to Pandora, Spotify or other services to push back on pricing and access.

But these reports are looking for the Apple advantage in all the wrong places – focusing on apps and pricing, iTunes and vivid visuals.

And while those things might be important, Apple has advantages that other streaming services don’t.

This includes access to a platform for music which is larger than the Web and bigger than mobile – a platform made possible, in part, by iBeacons.

Apple Is – Gasp! Not The First-Mover

According to Toni Sacconaghi, a financial analyst for Sanford C. Bernstein, Apple is late to the game.

“They’re used to being a shaper rather than a responder,” Mr. Sacconaghi said. “This is one of the few times where Apple is playing catch-up and not necessarily coming from a position of strength.”

Which makes me wonder what universe Sacconaghi is analyzing, exactly.

History has shown the opposite, of course. The entire Apple business model is based on coming late to the game – letting others get there first and arriving later with far superior products, whether music players, tablets, phones or watches.

If there’s a company on the planet who has shown it knows how to excel at coming second it’s Apple.

Regardless, the media seems happy to create a narrative in which there’s a good old-fashioned showdown between entrenched players like Spotify and the “newcomer” which is Apple.

Is The Apple Advantage an Interface?

These reports predict that Apple might have a shot because…well, because it will have a shiny interface:

The new music app, which is a collaborative effort between Mr. Reznor and other Apple and Beats employees, including Jimmy Iovine — who founded Beats with the hip-hop star Dr. Dre — will feature the streaming music service with many of the same characteristics as the Beats Music streaming service, one Apple employee said. Those may include curated playlists and a more vivid visual appeal, while conforming to Apple’s sleek and minimal design aesthetic, one person said. The name Beats Music will most likely be shed.

More vivid visuals. A minimal design aesthetic.

I can hear Jony Ive now, luxuriating over how every single pixel is perfect, hand drawn from molten gold with every musical note optimized down to nanogradients of sound.

The larger Apple advantage isn’t, of course, an interface. (iTunes has survived just fine even in its current incarnation as a benchmark for horrible UX design).

Apple’s advantage is its ecosystem, from the hardware to software, continuity between devices, and connectivity to your iPad, Apple TV or coming Watch.

If nothing else, Apple could drive a user experience which adapts a music stream based on whether you’re running or working out, can shift a stream from your iPhone to your home speakers with the flick of your thumb, and connect the mood of your music to the Philips lighting in your living room.

This ecosystem on its own, in addition to 800 million iTunes users, can give Apple an edge, regardless of the monthly price.

But there’s another frontier worth considering and it has nothing to do with the device in your pocket or the technology in your home. Because elsewhere the physical world is becoming a digital interface.

And streaming music could, one day, be embedded in things, with iBeacon showing us the way.

iBeacon and The Battle for Physical Space

iBeacon is Apple’s trademark term for Bluetooth Low Energy devices. By sending out a small radio signal, beacons allow our phones and other devices to “see” the world around them.

Beacons are being used in museums and public gardens, shopping malls and parking lots. They let the owner of a “place” send out a push message, a coupon, a piece of media or a special offer to a user’s phone via a ‘beacon-enabled’ mobile app.

Unlike NFC or QR codes, the user doesn’t need to do anything. Their app can be closed but their phone will still listen for beacons.

You can trigger a lock screen message or your app can just be a lot smarter when a user opens it up – sensing nearby beacons in order to present contextually relevant content.

Beacons represent one technology amongst many that are enabling digital interactions with physical space. Anything you can do online can now be triggered by people, places and things. You can “Pin” a store display, Tweet a painting in a museum, or browse a catalogue in the hardware store.

Often conflated with the Internet of Things (which generally refers to the ability of sensors and devices to talk to each other) they nonetheless represent a larger trend towards a fully connected physical world in which billboards know who you are (Minority Report style) and products on a shelf can talk.

Unlocking the Value of Proximity

This convergence of the physical world with digital affordances represents what we think is a platform that will be larger than the Web, which will be more disruptive than mobile, and which will enables new forms of value creation that weren’t previously possible.

With beacons we can link media, content, data and social interaction to the “last meter” of human experience. We can create digital engagement at the point of purchase, we can nudge users from one gallery to another in a museum, we can connect how we live, work and play to increasingly smart and data-driven systems.

This opportunity is both massive and massively frightening.

The convergence of the digital and physical worlds leads to self-driving cars and delivery drones, an apocalypse of artificial intelligence and the benefits of medical research conducted at massive scale.

It also unlocks value that was previously either unavailable, obfuscated or difficult: because if I can connect what you do on a phone to your presence in physical space, if I can connect a piece of media to the point of purchase, it means I can create a connection between digital media and physical activity or product purchases.

It’s this convergence which could both lead to a ‘renaissance of retail’ and its (even more) massive disruption.

In a future of beacons, we’ll see the “AirBnB of grocery” and the “Uber of retail”.

And we’ll see how things like music won’t just be portable. Their value will be embedded in everything.

The Next Big Apple Play is Loyalty

OK, I hate the term loyalty. Because most loyalty programs aren’t about loyalty. They’re transaction-based rewards for purchasing stuff.

I hate the idea of a product called called Apple Loyalty – it sounds like an airline rewards card or a bonus system for owning a ton of Apple devices (buy 10 iPhones and get a free Beats headphone!).

But if there was a company that was going to reinvent the concept of “loyalty” who better than the company that knows something about loyalty? And who better than a company leading the charge on mobile payments, with a growing infrastructure of merchants and payment providers, with the ability for stores to register their locations, and with the software tools to make beacon-detection part of the retail landscape?

Think of it this way:

  • You have two coffee shops near each other
  • One accepts Apple Pay, has iBeacon installed, lets you order in advance, makes the experience of buying your cappuccino frictionless
  • It also has a system in place where you show up, buy a coffee, and your Apple streaming music account is topped up or you’re able to pick up a recommendation from the staff or others who have visited the store

Or imagine going to a concert at a local club and there’s a “powered by Apple Music” sign at the front entrance.

You join a pop-up social network, you share some of your favorite Apple Music streams with fans nearby.

And once you leave your Apple Music account has been personalized, you have access to exclusive band interviews or raw clips from their last recording session, and your streaming costs for the month have been reduced by half because the concert promoter kicked back an account top-up with your ticket purchase.

An Apple patent for iBeacon imagines concerts as venues for media delivery:

Apple’s patent FIG. 15C indicates various location-based content that may be provided in connection with a concert or other music venue. A concert or music venue may provide content including, for example, music, setlists, virtual cards, website information, schedule information (e.g., for upcoming shows at the venue), graphics (e.g., album art, pictures of the band members, etc.), ticket sales (e.g., provide user option to purchase tickets in advance), general information relating to the concert, or any other information.

It’s not loyalty in the traditional sense. It isn’t about transactions it’s about experiences.

And it leverages the power of beacons: because for the first time, physical venues have a financial incentive and an ability to measure digital interactions against real-world behaviour.

If I own the coffee shop and I become an Apple Loyalty location I’m doing it because I can drive more foot traffic to my store compared to the one down the street. The fact that you as the customer get rewarded with Apple Music, if you get a bonus song instead of $2 off your next purchase, so much the better. I’d rather reward you with something you LOVE anyways instead of reducing your bill the next time you visit.

The coffee shop wins. Apple Music wins because it gets more “listens”. And the consumer wins because someone else is partly footing my music bill, and their experience of “place” becomes more deeply grounded in their digital and physical life.

iBeacon, Apple Pay and Apple “Loyalty” are simply the facilitating technologies which will help to triangulate our digital lives, our physical visits, and the interests of the places that we go.

Apple Everywhere

Apple isn’t alone in wanting to own the path you take through the world.

While Apple is focused on closed ecosystems and what I think of as “deeply connected” experiences, Google is coming at the same challenge from a different direction – using the “cloud” to provide an always-on, “deeply ambient” suite of technologies to help guide you through space.

Best typified by Google Now and Google Waze, their goal is to quietly collate where you go and how long you visit with its massive data sets in order to predict and present content that will become increasingly smarter and smarter. Google will know where you’re going before you’ve even decided yourself.

For Apple, the future is smart devices connected to relatively dumb “clouds” (an idea reaffirmed by Tim Cook’s focus on privacy).

For Google, the future is a smart cloud connected to relatively dumb devices.

But both are on a path to take your experience of them out of your pocket and into your home, into the stores you visit and into the music you listen to, television you watch, and games you play.

Beacons are part of this larger journey – dumb devices against which value can be assigned, music unlocked, experiences created, with the result being an absolute blurring of the lines between our digital personas and our physical bodies as they move through space.

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What do you think? Will Apple Music be more than just another version of ‘streaming beats’? How might it connect to Apple loyalty, Apple Pay and iBeacon? Drop a comment below.

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iBeacon Buffet: The Next Generation of Beacons Is Better (And Harder) Than the Last

Beacons just keep getting better. And the choices more difficult.

With manufacturers creating a new generation of the little devices it isn’t just battery life or reliable firmware you need to think about – but also choices about security, vendor lock-in, or concurrent technologies.

Even the definitions have shifted – you see a lot less talk about iBeacon and more references to BLE. Apple took the lion share of attention with its iBeacon specification, but as Android and other devices starting coming on board the larger industry started to understand that there wasn’t anything particularly special about an iBeacon – it was more of a branding move by Cupertino.

Apple made beacons simple. But as retailers, brands and venues have started understanding what a beacon really is,  the decision of “which beacon” has become far more complicated.

Beacons As Profound Change – And Challenge

How do you explain to a brand or retailer, for example, that even though BLE is a universal standard you still need to add a few digits to your advertising packet for a Samsung beacons, remove a few digits and change your broadcast interval for it to be an iBeacon?

It’s simple enough to say that “beacons work with all devices”, which is true – but can you avoid delivering beacons which end up being locked out by Samsung (for example) when they launch Proximity?

Regardless of the cross-platform challenges, we also saw a pronounced shift in the latter part of 2014 from “beacons as buzz” to “beacons as infrastructure” – and companies started grappling with the larger challenges of deploying, maintaining and building user experiences around beacons at a much larger scale than a few pilot stores or a museum exhibit or two.

These larger deployments and multi-year road maps are mostly happening under the radar. The conversations we have with customers, for example, have shifted from educational and pilot-focused to much larger multi-year projects with greater clarity around KPIs and a deeper awareness that beacons represent one prong in a larger strategic struggle.

We’ve said that beacons are “the gateway drug to the Internet of Things”.  Brands and venues have started grappling with the fact that while beacons make proximity possible, they also pose a larger question of how you create user experiences when everything can be digitized.

Beacons can help tell you that you’re in front of the cookie aisle. But once you’ve figured THAT out, you need to ask how the consumer got in front of the cookie aisle in the first place, where they’ll go next, and how looking at a bag of cookies changes when you can also deliver media, digital coupons, or an ability to purchase right at the shelf.

Beacons create a simple-to-understand interaction. But their implications for an always-on, digital-everywhere, contextually-relevant consumer experience drives to the heart of how we define a physical space in the first place.

5 Questions To Ask About Beacons

The number of beacon options is also expanding. And the manufacturers are moving “up the stack” – adding more and more services on top of their beacons while at the same time shifting from relatively ‘dumb’ beacons.

If you’re shifting from pilot deployments to beacons-as-infrastructure, new questions come into play:

  • How can you remotely monitor and manage a beacon, does it require a WiFi connection to do so, or does it embed management as a payload in the user’s app?
  • What specifications does the beacon broadcast for, and will it be able to simultaneously support (for example) iBeacon and Android specifications?
  • How can you create an authentication layer, do you need one, and what will the larger implications be as beacons shift into being a key part of the payments ecosystem?
  • Are the beacons secure? Do they need to be? What does security mean? What’s the difference between hijacking and spoofing?
  • What’s the vendor road map for Bluetooth 4.2?

And, in the “your guess is as good as mine” category:

  • Are the beacons future-proof against changes or innovations by Apple, Samsung, Google and other vendors?
  • Are you willing to make a bet on the Physical Web?
  • How quickly should we migrate to dual-mode BLE/NFC beacons?
  • Do your beacons work with location mapping technologies, do they need to, and can your beacon be made “self-aware”?

A Buffet of Beacons

This week felt like Christmas, and the post office must think we have a very large family. But it was boxes of beacons arriving at the front door.

Some of the latest beacons, platforms and announcements give us a hint of what’s in store for 2015:

Radius Networks RadBeacon X

Best known, perhaps, for their USB beacons and some of the best code examples and insights on the planet, Radius Networks got batteries for Christmas. Their RadBeacon X2 and X4 tout a rugged indoor/outdoor design and take a subtle dig at other beacons which often lock out your ability to control the UUID numbers:

You pick the identifiers for your project. Don’t get stuck with UUIDs from your beacon vendor that might overlap with other deployments.

But just as important is its dual-mode, with Radius saying that “RadBeacon is an all-weather, long-life Bluetooth Smart™ proximity multi-beacon using iBeacon™ and AltBeacon™ technology that provides seamless proximity services for both iOS and Android mobile devices. ”

Kontakt Gets Cloud

Kontakt meanwhile has been trying to slip its Cloud Beacon in for the holidays – but is facing a 6-8 week delay in shipment and is currently promising a mid-January delivery. A little late for Christmas maybe, and the delay is a misstep by the company which has been working hard to overhaul the service layer for its beacons.

The launch comes on the heels of Estimote launching its own cloud and fleet management services. While on first glance, the approaches might seem the same, there are big differences in approach.

Both launches point to subtle differences in the way companies are handling security, UUID rotation and over-the-air firmware updates.

Gimbal Series 21

Gimbal, the Qualcomm spin-off, continues its aggressive push to be the “big infrastructure” provider of beacons with the launch of its Series 21.

The company, which has taken indirect flak by outlets like Buzzfeed is highlighting its consumer-friendly privacy policies:

Gimbal has earned TRUSTe’s certification for consumer-controlled privacy, is a member of the Future of Privacy Forum and delivers industry-leading security via its secure software and transmissions.

Advertising and Connected Spaces

OK, they’re not actually beacons. But one is a home town favourite of ours – and an indication of how there will continue to be products and services that build out on top of all the beacons and services, whether Urban Airship or Salesforce.com.

Juice Mobile launched a sister company, Freckle IOT to make a play to be the platform for beacons (and other sensors), with a focus on outdoor media:

“Freckle permits brands to establish and maintain personalized consumer relationships, while allowing advertisers to deliver messages that are measurable,” says Sweeney, CEO of Freckle.  “Bringing the brand activation outside of the store to the interested and connected consumer reframes the conversation. Our solution is immensely scalable, both geographically and in its capacity to connect with future devices. Freckle connects all the dots.”

It’s an indicator that the view of beacons as ad networks will only grow.

At the other end of the spectrum are the highly personalized connected spaces offered by Get Robin. They’re promising automation and analytics for the world of work – and, if you haven’t taken it for a test drive, please do. Their experience is beautifully designed and the company is a demonstration that in addition to huge networks of beacons as ad networks, they’ll also drive much more intimate engagements.

A Busy Year Ahead

These are, of course, just a few of the announcements of the past few weeks. If you’re scanning the main stream media or tech press, beacons are a sort of gentle buzz.

But under the surface, there’s something more profound happening: companies have seen beacons as a deep innovation which they need to understand. But now that we’re past the initial learning curve with beacons, turning them into an operational strategy is giving us everything from ad networks to major transformations.

2015 won’t be the year of the beacon. It will be the year where beacons are the cost of entry to an era of digital which will transform industries in the same way Napster transformed music – the year when beacons are a synonym for the creative power of the Internet of Things to transform the way consumers experience a new landscape of digital embedded in the very physical world in which we live.

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Thoughts? Comments? Drop them below.

Apple iBeacons: 5 Common Myths

Its been called an NFC killer. Or Apple’s secret retail weapon. But myths have been launched along with the Apple’s iBeacon API, with Apple not exactly pounding the pavements to explain itself.

At its simplest level, Bluetooth LE is a wireless low-energy protocol for data transmission. It was designed to be simple and to be incredibly easy on battery power. The hope was that Bluetooth LE would, well, power a new generation of devices that could talk to each other. With Apple’s support of technology, that hope has come true.

Myth One: Beacons Have Magical Powers
The myths about Bluetooth LE are due in large part to the relatively small role it plays in creating user experiences. The impression you get as the press catches on to iBeacons is that it’s a stealthy super weapon and that Apple is planning to use it to steamroll through malls and corner stores.

But it’s not really the beacons themselves that will drive innovation. It’s what gets built because they exist that counts.

Or to put it in familiar terms: a phone that can run apps is an innovation. But the value comes from the apps themselves not simply the capacity of the phone to have them there in the first place.

Myth Two: Beacons Are A Lot Like WiFi
But maybe the reason iBeacon has been imbued with so much power is that it seems counterintuitive that something SO simple can be so powerful.

At its most pared-down level, Bluetooth LE transmits a very very tiny packet of data. This data lets compatible devices know that it’s there, how far away it is, and that’s about it.

A beacon has the same power that a beacon does out at sea: it just sort of floats there, sending out a little blip every few seconds. Without it, your boat could crash to the shore, but with it you can figure out where you are, where you’re going and how far you are from the nearest port.

Beacons don’t connect you to the Internet. They don’t conduct transactions. They don’t collect money or send out coupons. All they really do is wave at you and your phone or device does the rest.

Myth Three: All Beacons Are Alike
Now, having said that, not all beacons are alike. Bluetooth LE supports a few different profiles. They can require pairing, private or public modes, and a few other things.

Some are plugged into a USB port on your computer, some run on batteries and can be stuck to a wall, and some are embedded into your phone – making your phone itself a beacon that can also detect other beacons.

Again, at its most basic level, the beacons are simply transmitting tiny packets of data and sometimes getting data back that “pairs” them with your phone, thus creating a secure little handshake.

But beacons can also be combined with other bits and pieces of technology. You can combine Bluetooth LE with WiFi, an accelerometer or a temperature detector. You can even combine Bluetooth LE (to transmit tiny packets of “I’m here” data) with standard Bluetooth (to stream a lot more data).

Myth Four: Bluetooth LE is the Same as Bluetooth
And that latter point will, I’m sure, cause even more confusion. Sure, you can combine Bluetooth “standard” and LE into one device – but although they share a name, they’re two completely different things.

When you think Bluetooth you probably think wireless keyboards or those things you stick in your ear to make phone calls. Completely different thing from Bluetooth LE.

Myth Five: This is Apple’s Technology
But the branding of Bluetooth LE is a good reminder that it’s NOT called Apple LE. Which is what surprises me a bit about all the gushing press about how iBeacons are Apple’s retail super weapon.

The real power of Bluetooth LE and iBeacons is that it isn’t Apple’s super weapon. Instead, the real power is that we finally have a cross-platform technology. A growing number of Android devices are also ‘beacons’ or support receiving Bluetooth LE and unlike NFC we have a technology that crosses platforms.

With a proximity-based technology (and that’s a bonus myth for you: because proximity and location are NOT the same thing) that has the support of the major device makers, we finally have a baseline on which to build an ecosystem of user experiences that might be facilitated by iBeacons and Bluetooth LE, but which will be powered more by the imagination of developers than what this elegantly simple technology might suggest.

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Be the Beacon!

iBeacons: Why Form Factors Matter

Estimote beacons: it's turtles all the way down
Estimote beacons: it’s turtles all the way down

It’s a brave new world of beacons, a place in which the world will be talking to your phone rather than the other way around.

And as you get used to the idea that a lamp post or a store shelf or the equipment at the local gym is sending silent pings to your mobile device, tiny beacons will be the homing devices helping to keep track of it all.

It’s early days…and because it’s early days, the appearance of those beacons matter. Their form factors aren’t just design choices or aesthetics, they’re signals of a new web of connections…and how they look will, at first, go a long way to establishing their place in our culture before they fade entirely and become mostly invisible in the world around us.

Why Beacons Matter
When Apple announced support for Bluetooth LE through its iBeacon API, it meant we finally had a wireless communication protocol supported by all the major mobile devices.

Some called it a potential NFC-killer and I agree. The barrier to NFC, aside from Apple’s refusal to adopt it, was that the N stands for Near….and the idea that we need to bump our phones together to share data always felt a little silly.

iBeacon technology is based on Bluetooth LE – a low energy version of standard Bluetooth that was designed to primarily transmit very very small bits of data. By facilitating these small data exchanges, it can help your phone to ‘locate itself’ in a physical space and figure out whether you’re standing at a store entrance or in front of the chip aisle in the grocery store.

It’s a bit simplistic, but previously you had to rely on triangulated WiFi (accurate but expensive) or GPS (inaccurate, especially indoors) to figure out your location.

When it came time to transact – to pay for the bag of chips or to grab a digital coupon, you needed to scan a QR Code, tap your phone using NFC at close range, or conduct one of a half dozen other work-arounds. Bluetooth LE changes that: it lets you set up a secure handshake with a mobile device and, theoretically, pay for a can of pop without even walking up to the register.

Beacons: Commodity or Luxury Good?
So with a wave of Bluetooth LE and iBeacon technologies on their way, there’s been a rush to create the beacons themselves.

Not that you need to buy a commercial version – there are hardware kits at your disposal. A recently announced kit by COIN will hit mailboxes in December and comes in at an affordable $22 for a single device that combines an Arduino board with a Bluetooth LE module.

But for those of us who aren’t too handy with a soldering iron and have no idea what ‘sudo’ means, there’s a growing list of commercial options, most of which are already shipping and most of them come in at a similar price point – from $10 a month to $100 for a kit of three.

It might sound like commodity pricing, and maybe it is: but with billions of these devices expected to be sold in the coming years, it’s the kind of commodity I wouldn’t mind trading in myself!

The key, of course, isn’t just the device itself, its the services, the code, and the apps around it that bring it value. A beacon, after all, is just a tiny little battery-powered transmitter that sends out tiny data packets into the world around it where your phone picks up the signal, wakes up and then starts communicating through your normal cell phone or WiFi network.

The secure connection to the beacon helps take care of knowing who and where you are but its the ecosystem of apps and cloud-based services where the true user experience lives: the beacons just helped to get that experience started.

So If Beacons Are Just Little Transmitters, Why Does Form Factor Matter?
When you go to your local coffee shop and access their WiFi it’s unlikely that you look around to figure out which box the signal is coming from. iBeacons will be the same – your phone will ‘wake up’ and offer you a coupon or a deal, welcome you to a store or remind you that you tried on a pair of jeans the last time you visited and offer you a second fitting.

We’ll get used to the idea that the world is talking to our phones, just like if you use NikeFuel you’re used to the idea that your shoes can talk to a dashboard.

But it’s still early days, and until we become accustomed to a world of sensors and transmitters there’s some hurdles to overcome:

Beacons need a unique form factor to help, well, signal that they’re different from other communication devices.
Explaining beacons is harder than it seems.

I’ve been talking up beacons for a while now. And although it’s a simple enough concept it’s actually strangely difficult to explain how something so simple is fairly revolutionary.

We jump to mental models that we’re used to. In this case, what we’re used to, mostly, is WiFi. But beacons don’t facilitate rich data exchange – they’re merely triggers. They send a signal to your phone which triggers it to find its exact location in the physical world, and based on that any series of ‘events’ can happen – a push message through your lock screen, a special deal on your app. But those events happen independent of the beacon itself, which simply got the process started.

Beacons need to signal their (usually) benign intent
Depending how old you are, how tech-friendly, or what your feelings are about privacy and data, the idea of sensors tracking you or sending information to your very personal phone will either scare you or have you drooling for more.

It’s amazing to me how wide the range of responses have been when I’ve been talking about beacons. It’s a bit stereotypical, maybe, but in general if you’re younger it all makes perfect sense: getting information based on your location seems more like a service. You don’t mind that your friends can find out where you’re having coffee through Facebook, and you delight in the idea that if there’s a special on at the local butcher that your phone will ping you with a message.

For the rest of us, we still share a concern about who and what is watching us.

But one of the powers of beacons is that they’re mostly constructed to be opt-in. Major retailers might be surreptitiously tracking you through their store by picking up your phone’s Bluetooth signal (if you have it on), but beacons promise us that all they’re doing is transmitting and that the only collecting they do is if you’ve opted in to that collection.

Their form factor is important, because in most cases it should be visible and it should look different enough that the employee in a shoe store can credibly say: “it’s just a little transmitter and it only has the ability to send out little bits of data to people who have opted in to receive that data”.

Beacons need to signal delight
Beacons are transformative, just as the Internet of Things is transformative. For now, the use cases are mostly rehashes of old (and fairly tired) ways of thinking: coupons and loyalty points and special offers.

But beacons will become nodes in a universal story engine. They’ll help to facilitate a mesh of community and connection based on where we are in the world, our intent, our destination and our goals.

At their very best, beacons will be the touchpoint to experiences that delight. Their form factor matters, because even though they will become mostly unnoticed actors in our digital life, we need to meet them first: and our first meetings should give us a sense of their potential to delight, to facilitate stories and shared experiences.

There's a turtle on your wall!
Estimote beacons for retail

Turtles All the Way Down
I’m a huge fan of Estimote beacons. No, I’m not paid to say that – and to be honest, at first glance I thought they looked like weird shaped plastic turtles. Or some kind of carrying case for cosmetics maybe.

But the more I thought about my goals in using beacons, and the more I parsed the importance of their form factor, the more they grew on me. I love the fact that they’re not invisible because they remove the idea that we’re trying to be surreptitious. I love the fact that they don’t look like other devices.

Roximity: Apple Inspired
Roximity: Apple Inspired

Compare them to Roximity devices, which have clearly referenced Apple devices, in particular AirPorts.

Estimotes give the best of all worlds: unique, non-threatening, and different enough that it helps reinforce the idea that they’re NOT LIKE other devices, or scanners or WiFi networks.

They open a conversation, maybe, and while they might look like turtles they’re also discrete and small enough that they’re more likely to be mistaken for, well, an air freshener than the radical new wave of mobile communication.

Becoming Invisible
Your phone itself is a beacon and you probably don’t even realize it. Eventually, we will ALL become nodes on the network.

And the truth is that beacons will become invisible and very quickly. They’ll be integrated into other machines – added into WiFi modules or embedded in your cash register.

They will also become incredibly small. Just look at how tiny an Arduino board is becoming and you’ll immediately see what I mean:

Tiny tiny arduino
Tiny tiny arduino

But until then, there’s some cultural adoption and adaptation that needs to happen. And until the day that beacons become fully invisible, their form factors matter, because for many of us they will be our first handshake with the Internet of Things.

Disappearing Payments On the Internet of Things

UberReciept

On the Internet of Things the world is the Web. Sensors do their sensing, objects talk to you (or your phone, or your glasses) and to each other.

But if a can of soup can (theoretically) know you’re buying it, then why do mobile payments feel like they’re stuck with a ‘last mile’ problem not dissimilar to the old days when high bandwidth Internet access was constrained by that last bit of cable that runs from the road to your living room?

At Banking4Tomorrow, Brett King proposes that you don’t solve the last mile by deploying sexy new digital wallets or interfaces. It’s making payments disappear almost entirely that’s key to mobile payment adoption – much like the value of the Internet of Things will be driven in large part by what we don’t see.

We’ve been focused for too long on complex application stacks built on a legacy of payment infrastructures and security concerns and global panels on eWallets, all of whom were trying to solve the ‘last mile’ problem by, in essence, arguing over what kind of cable to string from the road to the home. As King notes:

“The pattern emerging is that, like the hype cycle, there has been a complexity cycle with modern payments based on transmission and identity that we simply didn’t need with a cash based system. Banks and payments players learned to value complexity as protection from fraud and a barrier to entry, but today it is that complexity that now is getting targeted by technology like mobile.”

Giving Users Context and Experience

Mobile, start-ups and new technologies are in the process of dis-intermediating the payment industries by focusing on the user first:

“The ultimate expression of all of the technology we are seeing right now in the payments space is not to make payments sexy, it’s to make the payment disappear…Digital natives certainly expect more context in their life. The most simple form of context in a payment instance would simply be understanding how much money you have in your bank account before you make a purchase or payment. The way payments evolve from here will not be making payments faster or better. The payment will disappear, becoming an embedded instance in another engagement or interaction.”

And yet this context only becomes possible because of the underlying complexity not in spite of it. I’d argue that NFC, for example, has been the biggest barrier to the last mile: contactless payment technologies that were still like a moat you needed to cross from the street to the living room. NFC was a needless barrier to context-sensitive technologies where, even though it might be contactless, you might as well be making contact – your phone (or chip or card or whatever) needs to be too damn close to the so-called contactless node.

With the advent of Bluetooth LE and other technologies, we’re leaping towards a new standard. If this was as if  Bluetooth LE decided to skip the last mile entirely and just broadcast broadband from the street itself.

Simplicity from Complexity

Like almost everything with technology, however, King is right: the art is in making extremely complex things incredibly simple. Now that the tools are in the hands of someone other than banks and large legacy-driven institutions, the user experience on the Internet of Things is finally in the right hands.