Google is cleaning Apple’s clock in proximity. Their suite of software development tools leaves Apple in the dust – from tight integration of their Nearby API and their Eddystone beacon protocols, to the monumentally important physical web, Google is making sense of proximity.
It didn’t need to be that way. Apple was first out of the gate with the iBeacon protocol. They had ample opportunity to take it further.
But a few World Wide Developer Conferences later, and iBeacon is the orphan child of Cupertino – filled with vague promises never fulfilled.
The only hint of iBeacon heading in a new direction was the announcement that you would soon be able to deliver “Offers” . But the project was abandoned when Apple killed iAd. (And the link to the Apple announcement has long been dead).
The Mistakes Apple Makes
The launch of iBeacon promised to revolutionize how our phones would react to the world around them. Apple launched it with little fanfare and yet it prompted a wave of hype – the promise that retailers could reach consumers with coupons, that museums could display digital data “next to” a painting or sculpture, or that we could track down friends at a club because their phones would be broadcasting as beacons.
The initial problems were understandable. A new way to “listen” to nearby devices was bound to have a few bumps. And you’d expect over time that Apple would continue to enhance and improve the technology.
But after several years, the changes have been minimal. And in some ways they’ve perhaps even degraded.
The technology itself, however, wasn’t the only problem:
- iBeacon was a trademark for beacons, but Apple offered little value in the iBeacon brand. You could adopt the iBeacon mark – or not. There was little incentive for beacon manufacturers to proudly wave the iBeacon flag, because it offered little assurance to end purchasers. Sure, it said that “this beacon can be heard by iPhones” but this caused more of a limitation than an opportunity – because the obvious next question was “What about Android?”
- Apple lawyers got in the way. The company aggressively protected its ‘iBeacon specification’. But the move was kind of like trying to protect a proprietary version of WiFi – it’s a technology everyone needs to use, and by ‘blocking’ access it created market confusion and all kinds of end-runs around the iBeacon standard.
- iBeacon detection became (even more) unpredictable. With every new OS release, you’d have to test all over again. The dependability of beacon detection kept changing. With one release, you would detect beacons quickly, and with the next O/S it seemed as if Apple was trying to conserve battery and had toggled back beacon monitoring. Without the ability to dependably say how long it would take to detect a beacon, and without being able to see ‘under the hood’ developers were faced with constantly checking their assumptions about beacon detection every time a new version of iOS was launched.
- There was little integration with other parts of the Apple ecosystem. Have you ever tried to register your “place” with Apple? I can barely find the page. Google, on the other hand, offers much deeper integration with other parts of their ecosystem – in part because of how far ahead they are on things like maps, places, nearby and other protocols.
But perhaps more than the above, Apple neglected the one thing that it does best: focusing on the end user.
Instead, it has allowed app developers to make what they will of iBeacon and BLE, while offering little guidance on how to create great consumer experiences. As a result, we’ve seen struggles in develop “hits” – apps where consumers truly get a ‘wow’ factor.
This isn’t solely Apple’s fault, of course. Instead, the company has focused on other broader experiences – and will perhaps one day bring iBeacon back into the fold.
Physical Web is a Game Changer
Google, on the other hand, looked at the experience of proximity and has created beacon-detection tools that make sense – the Eddystone protocols are well considered, have rich documentation, great examples, and tight integration with other services.
But the true game changer is the Physical Web. And while it’s early days, the Physical Web creates opportunities for user experiences that truly make a difference – by hooking proximity into the web itself.
With the shift to browsers that can detect and control all kinds of BLE devices, the Physical Web is one part of a larger shift to a Web which reacts to the physical world – and in this open world Google will always be master.
The tension between open and closed systems will continue to tug and pull, but for right now open is winning and Apple is left behind.
WWDC – What’s Next?
All of which leaves Apple with one last chance – to elevate iBeacon from orphan child to star of the show.
If Apple makes a move, it won’t be to enhance the ability to deliver coupons. It will be part of a larger ‘connected space’ strategy which may incorporate Apple News, Music or other products.
But it’s a last kick at the can for Apple, in my opinion. Because depending what approach they take at their Developer Conference in a few weeks, developers may well migrate to a “Google-only” proximity strategy (including the use of Google tools on Apple devices).
It’s up to Apple, as they have many times before, to take what others have done and make it their own. But in this case, the mistakes they need to learn first are their own.
Share Your Thoughts
Do you think Apple can change the game? Or will Google now dominate proximity? What could Apple do next with iBeacon – or is it too late? Drop a comment below, or pop me a note on Twitter.