Kontakt to its Customers: You’re All Doomed

Kontakt, one of the largest manufacturers of beacons, has a message for its customers: you’re all doomed.

In what might rank as one of the more bizarre examples of corporate messaging, the company’s founder has taken to LinkedIn to pronounce that with the arrival of the Eddystone beacon protocol (and related services) by Google, proximity companies are headed for the dust bin if they don’t radically change (and soon).

“Ask not for whom the bell tolls, proximity devs: it tolls for thee,” proclaims Szymon Niemczura.

But extending the logic of Szymon’s article, you can’t help draw the conclusion that it isn’t just the devs who will pay the price for Google’s entry into the market.

If you’re a retailer, a brand, a museum, a car company, a city or a theme park – you too should just throw up your hands and give up now.

Google will own mobile moments, the borg has arrived, and closed off becosystems will look something like AOL in the years to come: a walled garden that no one visits anymore.

And Apple? Naw. Says Szymon:

With a vanishing share of the smartphone market, the last thing the house that Steve built wants to do is give developers even more reason to jump ship.

Ah yeah. Poor Apple. Poor shrinking tiny little Apple. It’s hard to remember that they’re still around! It will be cute to see what little features they try to throw at us to protect their ever-vanishing market share and profits.

What’s Your Secret Sauce?

Now, I like Kontakt. They’re some really really smart people.

(Although, what’s with the videos that look like they were shot at summer camp? And by the way – audio engineering is a thing).

So maybe they have a secret sauce as Szymon claims: “At Kontakt.io, we think we’ve found our special sauce that will keep us growing and thriving as giants of the Internet space like Google, Apple, Facebook, and others compete over who earns what from the IoT.”

In response to which I have a question: China?

Because if Szymon’s observations are true, then the beacon itself has become king. The app layer, the SDKs and the software, the cloud services and back-end analytics will be swallowed up by the Web.

The promise of Eddystone is that you can turn your beacon into a Web endpoint and simply broadcast a URL.

And if that’s true, then it opens up the opportunity to flood the market with cheap beacons from China that do nothing more than broadcast a URL.

Do You Jump Into Bed With Google?

Setting aside the tone of Szymon’s article, it points to a larger question.

Because what’s clear is that Google has hit a home run. Eddystone is everything a beacon should be.

Google took a page from the Apple playbook: wait for the industry to develop, cherry pick the best ideas, and then come out with something that does everyone else one better.

The Eddystone format is brilliant.

But now you need to make a decision: do you go “all in” with Google, do you try to find a middle ground, do you focus on the “app-less” layer or combine different proximity experiences to create a unified customer journey?

Creative Tensions Between Open and Closed Systems

The way you answer the above questions will have a big impact on what kind of beacon you buy and what kind of customer experience you want to create.

In an interview with Kontakt, they clearly think that the “app-less beacon world” is a big deal:

Along with yesterday’s release of new Chrome browser for iOS with support for a Physical Web standard this became clear – proximity devices are able to communicate with our phones without the need for other apps. This means a Physical Web is finally visible and ready for broader adoption.

But here’s the problem: what does “communicate with our phones” mean?

Is that all we really want to do? Is your vision of the mobile world one in which the Web has won?

Szymon is right:

“10 years in Internet is effectively forever, and it’s a rare startup that considers what the landscape will look like as far out as two years, but this matters, so I’ll point it out: native capacity to push alerts and more direct from beacons to devices kills a huge number of app use cases.”

Truly, the traditional definition of an “app” is eroding.

There will be apps that sit on your phone but that you’ll never use on their own. Instead, they’ll be shared as ‘sheets’ inside other apps, provide deep linking capabilities, and sit as a kind of invisible thread across an ecosystem of experiences.

But that doesn’t mean that apps will be replaced by whatever Google has to offer, anymore than it means that HTML will win in the war against native.

Which is why Eddystone does more than just broadcast Web pages (although its ability to do so will open up some pretty great user journeys).

Like many engineers, Kontakt seems to be more interested in the transactional nature of systems than the very real human experience they entail.

(Just look at Kontakt’s Web site or its developer portal and you’ll see what I mean – they feel like were designed in 2002 by a bunch of engineers one weekend).

The implication here is that in the tension which will always exist between open and closed systems, the pendulum has swung: open will win, Google is right, native is disappearing and apps are dead.

If you’re willing to make that bet, great. Go for it. At least you’ve taken a stance! And perhaps in the longer arc of history you’ll be right – but until then we still have to worry about today.

What Kind of Beacon Will You Use?

In response to questions about Eddystone, Kontakt tells me that you’re going to need to make a choice (at least for now) in which of their beacons you choose: Eddystone OR iBeacon.

Why? Because battery.

In an interview, Kontakt tells me:

Our beacons broadcast 4 different frames one after the other: 3 advertising packets (Eddystone-UID, Eddystone-URL, Eddystone-TLM) and a scan response. To the best of our knowledge, Kontakt.io is the only company on the market who has offered that from day one.

We have been investigating the possibility to add also an iBeacon frame to the set, but broadcasting that many different packets is going to cause a pretty heavy battery drain. While we research ways to help keep a useful battery life on our product, we will also be looking at client demand for this feature. We don’t have any timeline on when we may roll this out, as it’s very much just in R&D right now.

Which is odd, considering that if you don’t interleave with iBeacon, then your beacon battery might be fine, but the iOS user’s won’t be. By relying on Core Bluetooth instead of the native framework from Apple, you can expect Apple users to take a hit on battery life if you’re solely relying on the Eddystone format.

These kinks might be worked out, but it’s an obfuscation to say that it’s your beacon’s battery which is the sole limitation.

In fairness, Kontakt isn’t entirely advocating a “throw out your iBeacons” stance. If you’ve got some of those old beacons lying around then sure, why not, you should hang on to them. (But I guess you should know that you’re missing out on some huge potential):

Every discussion regarding iBeacon and Eddystone formats, and which one fits our client needs better, always starts with a question about use case details. Eddystone opens new possibilities, but at the same time requires more complicated coding to integrate as it sends more types of data than iBeacon does. Beacons that use Eddystone-TLM format to send telemetry data (such as temperature data) will have shorter battery life because they are sending more data packets etc. All of that needs to be taken into account before we jump on the Eddystone bandwagon.

In general, I think that “switching” is probably not the correct choice for anyone with a live deployment right now. Anyone with a P.O.C. that’s running, though, or someone who’s in early tests? I would strongly encourage that those people try this out because this whole platform is growing in exciting ways and has huge potential.

For many use cases, an Eddystone URL format beacon might be fine. You might be able to move the needle a bit on customer engagement.

For everyone else, there are larger questions at stake.

Kontakt itself hints at this future. With the coming wave of mesh beacons, the company’s Cloud Beacon takes aim at what will happen when the next Bluetooth specification starts hitting the market. The company tells me they have big plans, and that those plans validate why its Cloud Beacon format isn’t threatened by Google’s Proximity API:

Our Kontakt.io Cloud Beacon remains the only enterprise-level tool for beacon monitoring that we’re aware of: if you need to be able to guarantee that you are scanning and looking at beacons in a given area at regular intervals, a Cloud Beacon is your best bet. On top of that, Cloud Beacons are part of our other real competitive advantages: security and sharing.

In the future we will introduce completely encrypted channels for communication between beacons, cloud beacons, and smart devices. This, combined with powerful features such as our scheduled profile shuffling (driven by our API) and the industry’s only Power Sleep mode designed to extend beacon battery life, means that the Cloud Beacon still has very strong USPs that make it an attractive prospect for any company looking to roll out beacons on the large scale.

An Industry Transformed

The industry has been transformed with the launch of Eddystone.

For beacon manufacturers, a new wave of low-cost alternatives from China will put pressure on them to tighten up the value-added services they provide, the relationships they have with developers, and the level of execution they put into their user documentation, community management and marketing.

For developers, the range of opportunities has expanded rather than contracted.

But while Eddystone might seem to cut through the clutter and remove barriers in app development it also creates a richer, and thus more complex suite of choices for brands, retailers, cities and cultural institutions.

I have deep faith in this industry.

I don’t need to give any of you a wake-up call or tell you that you’re doomed. Because for the 100s of proximity companies I’ve talked to, and for the hundreds of brands and retailers we’ve interacted with (and who are doing their best to make sense of a rapidly changing world), I’ve found that optimism in the face of progress is the best guarantee of innovation.

And this week, we’ve entered a new era in which to thrive.

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How will you respond to Eddystone? Is this a new era of doom or one of innovation?

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?

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.

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? 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.

Facebook: A New Game for Beacons? | Guest Post

Facebook iBeaconThe adoption of iBeacon may have just been significantly changed by Facebook for their 745 million active mobile users, as reported on their January 28th SEC report.

As regular readers of this blog know, applications are required for iBeacon support within iOS devices and their hugely adopted app now supports GPS, WiFi and Bluetooth beacons for location data as a part of their “Foursquaresque” Pin Points feature rolling out in New York, the back yard of what made Foursquare a staple in 2007; albeit from manual user check-ins, something that Facebook also semi-automated in their app via GPS and WiFi rendering Foursquare obsolete in 2012.

A problem with this rollout is that most users have push notifications within the Facebook mobile application turned off. This fact is why the company separated their messenger application, so users had a new approval process within a unique application, to which Facebook hopes that its users will leave push notifications turned on.

They knew this data after their purchase of WhatsApp, an application that overwhelmingly has push notifications turned on, as it has built a trust relationship with users. To explain further, when you would “like” or “comment” and otherwise make small talk upon a Facebook wall, a notification would be sent to relevant users of the mobile application on a smartphone – interrupting their day with a non-critical message.

As Facebook has become a replacement for people’s off-hours or entertainment time, tapping into TV watching time as a way to socialize with remote friends, those alerts coming to phones were interruptive and broke the trust that users had with the application. Hence push notifications were turned off. Mark stated the reason for the two different apps was to pull up the message more quickly from the notification screen of iOS in this quote from 2014 “Whenever you receive a message through the Facebook Messenger app, it sends a notification to your phone so that you can quickly pull up that conversation.”

Most users keep push notifications for their SMS, WhatsApp, Telegram or other instant messaging clients turned on. But once an application gets “spammy” or otherwise interrupts your personal time with unnecessary alerts, it is either deleted or banished to the world of never alerting. Currently, if you turn alerts off in WhatsApp or the Facebook Messenger application, you are greeted with a dark screen stating “Please turn on Notifications” for the “app to work best” along with visuals on how to re-enable what they deem optimal to you. They designed it to mimic an error message to entice users to turn the functionality back on.

With the current Apple iOS security model, in order for iBeacon to automate an app, notifications along with Location Based Services settings must be both turned on.   Therefore this rollout of iBeacon support in Facebook proper app will not be useful in having a user launch an application within a space. That being said, once they launch the app to front, it will be able to read any beacons present and automatically display tips, coupons or other content in their database for that position. It was nice to see they are also using WiFi and GPS for this, as the beacon rollout worldwide is negligible at this time. This is why my company NewAer focused on any radio signal that sends out a beacon, long before iBeacon was announced.

Google has the potential to go big with users as well. Scott Jenson is working on a Google project that enables “seeing” beacons within mobile Chrome on Android, along with a URL string that is buried within the Meta data of a beacon broadcast framework. I liken this to a QR code as they embedded direct URLs, but beacons could have a potential spammy element.

Take this scenario; as you walk by a Zip Car; whether you are a subscriber to the car sharing service or not, your Chrome browser would ask you if you wish to head to the Zipcar.com website to reserve a car or learn more about the service. Think of it as a digital dousing rod on your path through life with the potential for more “heads down” behavior into your smartphone.

The story remains to be told on whether Apple relaxes its security practices around the way apps are woken up by beacons, how many beacons an application can support, or whether Facebook moves iBeacon support into the Messenger application which has more users with “push notifications” turned on. It’s still to early to say whether the Google or similar Samsung approach of a browser or client at the mobile operating system level will be the winner in consumer eyes for proximity based marketing, engagement or other automation.

Either way, we’re excited to see Facebook in the game of bringing contextual relevance to the masses. Lets just never let this become spam 2.0, OK?

Guest Author: Dave Mathews

Dave Mathews is founder and CEO of NewAer, the first proximity platform software that runs on Android, iOS, OSX and Windows enabling peer to peer discovery of devices on any supported radio as well as unpaired messaging between clients. More on his software as a beacon engine can be found at proximityplatform.com online. Dave is an expert in the machine-readable code space since his 1997 invention the CueCat, the first PC based Internet of Things (IoT) device. This PS/2 or USB tethered reader took any printed barcode and delivered users to specific websites automatically based upon their physical location, years before Location Based Services (LBS) and QR codes attempted the same for mobile phones.

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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Beacon Ad Networks: The Best Way to Destroy a Developing Industry | Guest Post

While some beacon companies turn to Ad Networks as a savior, doing so would destroy the industry. That’s the premise of our guest author Alex Ball, CEO and Founder of Signal360. He takes a hard look at whether beacon companies should turn to ad revenue to drive growth.

Why Beacon Companies Are Turning to Ad Networks

A year and a half ago Apple released “iBeacon,” a marketing name for a software callback added to the iOS Operating System SDK. To marketing teams at Entertainment, Hospitality and Retail Companies, it was as if Apple had sent an edict as to the future of marketing. It seemed, and continues to seem based on news reports, as if beacons are now at the core of every marketing campaign. However, all those months later, the number of real world implementations are miniscule.

One of the first stated implementers of the technology was Major League Baseball at stadiums across the US. Two seasons later, the technology is deployed at a small subset of stadiums and is delivering only a single welcome message through an application that has downloads of only eighty thousand compared to the tens of millions who visit a ballpark each year.

With the Apple iBeacon announcement have come thousands of “beacon” companies. Every company premises itself on the amazing vision of content being delivered in aisle. However, many of these companies are currently closing shop or pivoting as hardware prices dropped, initial enthusiasm has waned, and companies come to term with the fact that large enterprises buy complete turnkey marketing solutions, not hardware.

So far the story follows a typical arc for a technology; initial outpouring with many competitors, natural pivots and closings as the market is winnowed down to the few companies providing an adequate solution. The problem is that as beacon providers have struggled to effectively signup and integrate with enterprises, many in the industry have turned to an Ad Network as the saving grace.

The Premise of Ad Networks

The premise and promise is that instead of convincing retailers of the value proposition, proximity companies instead try to integrate their SDKs into a variety of 3rd party applications and hope to deliver across networks of physical devices installed in malls, retailers etc.

The recent Lord and Taylor press release stated that the company had embraced Proximity Marketing in its stores. What was not stated explicitly was that the app being used is a 3rd party coupon app and the Lord and Taylor app does not include any proximity functionality.

Unnamed sources at Lord and Taylor informed us that the quoted cost for integration was in the ten of thousand of dollars but that was deemed too expensive. To a company with approximately one million in revenue per store last year, this shows a disappointing precedent of being unable to produce even a small amount of value from proximity marketing. This is not the utopian or even dystopian vision of beacons everywhere, this is a big tease.

..And The Peril of Ad Networks

What’s the danger of Proximity Marketing taking the easy road of integrating with and creating Ad Networks instead of direct with retailers?

  • The danger is that the public’s first interaction with Proximity Marketing will be for a game app to suddenly send twenty notifications as a shopper travels through their grocery store.
  • The danger is that the Retailer will lose the ability to personalize, to learn from its customers, to improve and strengthen its brand and sales.
  • The danger is that the entire Proximity Marketing industry will be permanently damaged. Instantly the power of proximity will be branded by consumers as a spam mechanism for coupons.

The problem with the ad network approach is one of ownership. Because Proximity Marketing is a complex process that requires a retailer, a physical beacon, a smartphone application, interesting creative, feedback mechanisms to control rate of delivery, notice and choice and more; this is not something that fits into the standard agency model of a quarterly ad buy.

When the retailer is not the owner of the experience, then the policing of the content and the relevance is left to the Ad Network which is interested in impressions not in long term value add to the consumer. Proximity technology has the promise of being a powerful weapon in the physical retailers fight against ecommerce; it lets the retailer own the physical and digital experience, giving customized experiences and value to the customer.

So what’s to be done?

There are retailers who are staying the course. At Signal360 we have the pleasure of working with many NRF100 retailers who chose us because of our turnkey and complete solution. Today we have won the RFP’s, integrated into the apps and are deploying at major retailers across the country without sacrificing consumer experience for a seemingly easier path.

What does the future of Proximity Marketing look like?

A few proximity marketing providers will offer complete and turnkey systems to assist retailers deliver in house proximity marketing.

These well crafted and contextual messages will meet with mostly intrigue and interest by consumers as we have seen with our implementations. As consumers become more familiar with the technology and the use cases, and on a case by case affiliate basis, brands will be allowed to deliver into the retailers apps and select 3rd party applications. This will open the door in a controlled way and most importantly keep the ownership with the retailer. Ever since the dawn of the Internet, retailers have seen many of their advantages chipped away. Not so with proximity, retailers will finally own their physical as well as digital space.

Count us in to that vision. That’s something we want to be a part of. Because in the end its what will be good for the consumer and thats what matters.

Guest Author

Alex Ball, CEO and Founder of Signal360. Signal360 a leader in proximity marketing solutions with over four years of experience creating a differentiated, turnkey, best in class proximity platform.

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What do you think? Will brands be able to resist the call of ad networks? And what will it mean for consumer acceptance and the success (or failure) of beacon-focused companies?

Beacons Make Brands Smarter (And Consumers Win)

Beacons make brands powerful.

But the power comes at a price: because unlike passive detection technologies, beacons emit a signal.

And that signal is both a godsend for brands and the source of their greatest terror: that a consumer will delete their app, that they’ll cross the line from contextual to creepy.

Beacons can make both brands and consumers more powerful. And this tension is one of the main reasons they’ve become such a massive source of innovation.

Brave New World?

It’s a brave, amazing, scary and sometimes creepy new world.

It’s a world where your car is connected to the ‘cloud’, your wristband knows your heart rate, your home knows that you’re back from the office and your thermostat knows how warm you like to keep things and how bright you like your lights.

In this brave new world, Buzzfeed has gone to town and highlighted concerns about beacons being placed on billboards and phone booths:

Gimbal’s apparent strategy — getting hundreds of its beacons placed in high-trafficked public spaces — contrasts markedly with the indoor, retail-focused applications that have dominated beacon-based marketing so far, such as telling a customer in aisle 12 that polo shirts are on sale.

While municipalities have trumpeted the potential civic uses of a beacon network (to help city agencies send alerts and other messages to smartphones, for example), their implementation has far-ranging commercial implications. And while the outdoor ad firms have so far played down those implications publicly, they’ve already pitched brands on the consumer potential of beacons.

The deployment of massive outdoor networks seems to come at a price: consumer privacy. Buzzfeed reports that:

…a large beacon network seems to be essential to the services the company has marketed to its clients. Gimbal’s “Profile” service, for example, “passively develops a profile of mobile usage and other behaviors” that allow the company to make educated guesses about a user’s demographics (“age, gender, income, ethnicity, education, presence of children”), interests (“sports, cooking, politics, technology, news, investing, etc”), and the “top 20 locations where [the] user spends time (home, work, gym, beach, etc.).” According to Gimbal, the Profile service only operates for users who explicitly “opt in” to it.

The truth, however, is that if you’re concerned about brands and retailers having a ton of data about you – about where you shop, where you check-in, where you hang out with your friends – then you have some catching up to do.

Beacons barely make a dent in building up the kinds of profiles Gimbal offers. It’s not the beacon that’s the source of all that data – it’s the ability to connect beacon data with your Facebook profile, say, your Foursquare data, or your Tweets that should have you worried.

There are, in other words, way way easier ways to conduct surveillance on your interests, shopping habits and where and what you spend.

And none of those other methods make it so easy to “opt out” or are as consumer-focused as Gimbal is by requiring you to opt-in.

Gimbal might not be a beacon (so to speak) of consumer privacy and protection, but their impulse to collect data is mitigated by one very very simple thing: beacons aren’t silent.

Beacons broadcast.  It’s this broadcast (a radio broadcast which does nothing more than emit a bunch of ID numbers and other data) which has retailers and brands deeply aware that consumers can and will notice (just as Buzzfeed was able to notice beacons, because they could…you know, monitor for them).

Beacons, in other words, especially in comparison to passive detection technologies, are a consumer’s best friend.

Clean Well-Lit Spaces

Now, Buzzfeed is right to be concerned. But not about beacons so much as about the role of any connected devices in the public space.

When I walk down the street I’m in the public commons.

Should the commons be free of digital commercials and tracking? Should I expect that a public park, for example, be free of cameras and beacons and passive WiFi monitoring? What about a public square – should I expect that advertising be clearly marked? Should I expect that technical infrastructure be aligned to the public good, and how do we define the public good?

If Facebook uses GPS to track where I’ve been, does the fact that they did so while I was in a public square matter? Or is the venue irrelevant because I’ve formed an implicit (or explicit, if you count a TOS as a legible instrument) contract with their app?

It’s OK to have advertising on subways or buses, but what if the advertising is mostly invisible to us? What if devices detect our actions and then push messages to us when we get to the mall based on where we’ve travelled?

Do we have a right to know that data collected about us in the public square can be used in private, commercial businesses like malls and retailers?

The use of connected devices in public spaces may be one of the great debates of our time. (Or might not be debated at all…and a Buzzfeed article or two will be the only record of having tried).

How we know about and react to connected devices in the public commons reminds me of what Eben Moglen, director of the Software Freedom Law Center once called the need for “clean, well-lit spaces”:

It has got to tell you what the rules are of the space where you are it has to give you an opportunity to make an informed consent about what is going to happen given those rules. It has got to give you an opportunity to know those things in an automatic sort of way so I can set up my (profile) to say, you know what, I don’t go to places where I am on video camera all the time. Self, if you are about to walk into a room where there are video cameras on all the time just don’t walk through that door. So I don’t have to sign up and click yes on 27 agreements, I have got (a profile) that doesn’t go into places that aren’t clean and well lit.

Against this backdrop beacons play a critical role. Because they broadcast. And by broadcasting they announce to a consumer “I’m here, now do with me what you will”.

The Right to Say No Doesn’t Just Impact Consumers

Beacons don’t solve these larger issues of technology in the public square, but at least they’re not completely passive and invisible.

Buzzfeed can still run around detecting beacons, consumers can still “opt in”, and you can still turn your Bluetooth off. The same can’t be said for passive WiFi monitoring, facial recognition or other invisible (and often signal-free) technologies.

By leaving power in the consumer’s hands, Gimbal can have millions of beacons in the world, but brands will still be careful about what they do with them.

In today’s world, there are very very few brands who want to be creepy. Not necessarily because they’re well-intentioned, but because they fear that you’ll do something as simple as deleting their app.

Your right, as a consumer, to say no, to turn Bluetooth off…has a very clear and direct impact on how brands and retailers thing about how beacons are used.

It’s the same impulse which has Apple continually tweaking how iBeacon works – turning on the ability for apps to detect beacons when off, for example, while giving consumers more choice in how location tracking is used.

The Winner is Innovation

We’ve met with dozens of brands. We’ve met with retailers who are using passive WiFi detection (using the signal from your phone to track where you go in their store), hidden cameras which detect your age and gender, and who crunch massive amounts of data about what websites you visit, what apps you use, and what neighbourhoods you visit.

But when it comes to iBeacon and BLE devices we almost always end up in the same place, where brands say this: “That we’d better get this right. We’d better not be creepy. And we’d better figure out a way to make this useful to the customer”.

Fear of their apps being deleted leads to innovation. And beacons give them a massive creative canvas on which to work.

The world ahead might be creepy. Connected devices might end up meaning not much more than “more data in more places”. But so far, beacons trend towards something else: a more contextual, user-focused world.

As Molly Wood reported in the New York Times:

Data collection and aggressive advertising will almost certainly be part of the early days of the beacon rollout. But hopefully the phase will pass quickly, because beacons have a lot of potential to deliver rich digital context on top of the real world.

To realize that future, users will have to know which apps to trust and reject the apps and the companies that take advantage of our phones’ home screens. The ultimate future of beacon technology is really up to us.

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

Thoughts? Are connected devices a threat to privacy? What’s their place in the public square? And what role do beacons play in an age of consumer “big data”?