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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