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.

Get Robin Gets Beacon Spaces

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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10 Responses to “iBeacon Buffet: The Next Generation of Beacons Is Better (And Harder) Than the Last”

  1. Another excellent piece on the Beacon soap opera, with a bunch of interesting characters and plot twists. Beekn continues to lead this ecosystems in terms of timely well informed insights and education. Thanks for your contributions to making us all smarter about this market in 2014 Doug!

    One of the story lines you highlight is that beacon vendors are continuing to build value higher in the stack. This makes sense given that there is very little money to be made in the hardware, unless you are in the chip business. It seems that the beacon OEMS have a set of choices that they can make in terms of where that value will be added. They need to exercise those choices wisely in order to foster an ecosystem around their platform and not declare war on every potential partner our there (kudos to Apple for doing that so well). The choices they make initially are likely to change as they move around the chess board and zero in on the ultimate pot of gold. In my mind the choices include: Fleet Management (e.g. Estimote), Beacon Physical Network (e.g. Gimbal), Beacon Ad Network (e.g. inMarket), Campaign Management (e.g. Pulsate), Analytics (TBD – mainly provided by players decoupled from hardware), Payments (e.g. PayPal), Applications (e.g. ShopKick).

    Anyone can produce a bad beacon and making good beacon hardware is hard/expensive. This particular journey through the “Chasm” is likely to be slow (the speed of deployment is gated by the physical world, not just the software world. Think how long the Macy’s journey from pilot to full deployment has taken. Beacon OEMs will be under pressure to focus in order to conserve funds on this long expensive journey. So choosing their target value add segment will be even more important.

    I expect that we will see the cast of characters expand, but by the end of 2015 beacon vendors that don’t chose and execute on the area of value add will be lying dead on the beaches with over extended supply lines. More middleware only players will flourish (e.g. Rover), unencumbered by the inventory/supply chain and other burdens of the hardware business. The beacon hardware battle will be won by those who achieve volume and cultivate a healthy ecosystem.

    Another prediction for 2015 is that IP battles will add to the drama. The early patent filings are starting to work their way through the USPTO process and the holders will have to decide if they are going to use what they have for offensive or defensive purposes.

    My most confident prediction for next year is that 2015 will be far from boring. What will Apple announce with respect to hardware? How far up the stack will they move? Will Samsung really be able to untangle its web of confusing brand names and figure out how to make a proprietary stack viable? How far will Google go in linking its ad business to the world of digital to physical convergence? Who will get bought? Who will die and who will the bright new entrants on this exciting stage be? Happy Holidays.

    Reply
  2. Steve,

    My sentiments exactly. I second that in regards to Apple and Samsung moving up the stack in the hardware business. I’ve been very selective with the brand of beacon hardware I choose because I can see in 2015 a whole lots of M&A happening in the hardware space. The last thing I want is a Google to come along and buy out one of these hardware companies and put the kibosh on the hardware I decide on. Ultimately, I decided to use Estimote given their track record, innovation and one of the first to market.

    We shall see. Should be an interesting year!

    Reply
  3. In Unacast we are also curious to see what 2015 will bring, and one thing that is clear from our perspective, working with many of the PSP’s (Proximity Solution Providers), is that a clear difference is already starting to be visible in regards to the available funding and the knowledge level.

    It is easy to get going to deploy beacon HW and SW, but tough to get right. I would say that of the 150 PSP’s out there right now, around 25 to 30 players are positioned to remain as the dominant players (again, looking at funding and knowledge). That said, it is still early days, and new entries are to be expected as the speed of deployment increases.

    It is forecasted that between 60 to 300 million beacons are commercially deployed in 2018. In Unacast we are starting to believe more in the latter and higher figure. Anyways, exciting times ahead, and the most important task we as an industry have right now is to make sure that the end user applications are of real value. We can’t have a situation where the end user perceives proximity communication as spam, and simply turns it off.

    Let’s keep it relevant and elegant!

    Reply
    • Amitai Oliver

      Kjartan,

      Can you back up the ’60 to 300 million beacons’ forecast? I could not find it online.
      I saw much lower estimates; ABI research estimates 60 billion units by 2019, and BI Intelligence forecasts 4.5 million beacons in the US only by 2018.

      Thanks!

      Reply
      • Hi Amitai,

        The 60 million is indeed from ABI, but I see that they write 2019 and not 2018. Will update on my end. The 300 million was a bullish figure presented at an IoT seminar here in Scandinavia, and that was including “beacon capable” embedded chips in other devices. Either way, this market is growing fast, and we believe the 60 million to be a bit on the cautious side. 2018 (or 2019) is many, many years ahead.

        Reply
  4. Not sure if you wanted it to come out like this, but my TL;DR was ‘Its a mess’.

    I have spent about 2-3 days in total over the past 2 weeks trying to get a Raspberry Pi to give me beacon data. Just listen for any beacons in the area and show me the data. That’s all.
    The plan is to deploy 10’s of them around the building and report position data of beacons that are on the move….. I’m no noob to this sort of Linux / RF mashup, but wow. What a mess. Some beacons show up, some don’t, some have different data structures, some show temperature, most have it, but don’t show it (I would like to see any data the beacon has to offer).

    Right now, it seems that the tool set to use beacons is far behind the push to vendor lock in.
    Also the lag in open source tools to do any data reduction / position reporting is a bit of a worry.

    Looking forward to next year. Things can only get better.

    Reply
  5. Great article Doug, as always. The IBeacon may still need a lot of exploring but seeing more and more companies being hooked on the technology is definitely a very promising sign we are on the right track. We must be doing something great as the trend keeps getting popular and the competition grows which can only be beneficial to everyone.
    Beacons do work with both iOS and Android and I think at Blue Sense Network http://bluesensenetworks.com/ we’ve got the right key to keep our clients happy and make their life easier. We offer a Proximity Sense cloud platform for beacon management, which has some premium features but the configuration and beacon management functionality are provided for free. Further more, to simplify the on boarding process, our beacons are already registered into the system and assigned to our clients so they get to play with them as soon as the beacons hit their doors. We also take care of the fussy bits – hardware installation, configuration and support. And these are just a few tools we use.
    The key is to put customers’ needs first and just go the extra mile.

    Reply
  6. Fábio Collares

    Hi. Do you know that?

    The TagPoint have a project for the visually impaired. The ibeacon technology helping those in need and transforming the world.

    Reply
  7. Great post Doug. And I totally agree with what you said. With beacon manufacturers making themselves busy at creating a new generation of proximity detection devices, choosing the right beacon hardware has become even more complicated. Now, the factors to be considered do not end at battery life or reliable firmware, but merely extend to choices about security, vendor lock-in etc. In fact. when it comes to museums and all, even the color and appearance of the beacon played a huge role in the decision making process. Taking all this into consideration, Sensoro recently released Yunzi, is a smart wireless sensor built on iBeacon technology. It is as small as a wristwatch and can be easily deployed. Moreover, Inspired by the semi-precious stone, Jade, Yunzi features an elegant sleek design with an ultra-smooth texture. This definitely is one beacon that verticals looking for elegantly designed beacon could opt for.

    Reply

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