Bluetooth beacons, those low-power signals that announce location and other data to nearby devices, have broadcasted more hype than reality. That may change, thanks to a Google-backed initiative called Eddystone.
Eddystone, at its heart, is primarily a set of formats—agreed-upon standards for data transmission meant to simplify the cacophony of bits that beacons broadcast.
This won’t solve all the problems beacons face—many of which, as Matt Asay recently pointed out, are business-related rather than technical. But Eddystone promises to remove some of the barriers that have made beacons a headache.
A Beacon Of Hope For Developers
To date, the beacon industry has been vertically integrated, with companies like Gimbal, the Qualcomm spinoff, providing hardware, software, services, and standards. Apple has its own iBeacon standard, focused on enabling beacons for iOS devices.
That works well in scenarios where retail chains like Macy’s install beacons in their stores and design apps to talk to those beacons. There, only the retailer’s in-house developers have to understand the data broadcasted by those beacons, and the rules and safeguards around its use.
That vertically integrated scenario starts to fall apart when beacon-equipped physical locations want to court a wide range of developers, while protecting the privacy of users. Now retailers and the managers of other public venues can simply publish specifications for the data their beacons broadcast—and developers can build all kinds of apps they never envisioned.
Think of this as the moment beacons become an open platform.
The need for this struck me when I thought back to South By Southwest Interactive, which experimented with beacons tied to the tech conference’s official app. Features, like finding nearby conference attendees going to the same panel, were interesting, but were trapped within SXSW’s app. It would have been far more interesting if SXSW had unleashed its community’s creativity—if it had a way to announce specs for its beacons and welcome in third-party developers. That’s the kind of thing Eddystone can fix.
“It’s been clear to me, because I’ve been deeply involved in this for a while, that it’s not a one- or two-person ecosystem,” Matthew Kulick, a Google product manager who worked on Eddystone, told me. “You’ve got people who specialize in deploying beacons into people’s apps. It’s a relatively interesting ecosystem. That’s why we’re trying to offer tools and services here at multiple layers of the stack.”
Stacking Up Tools
Those layers include application programming interfaces (see our API explainer), which allow app developers to associate a beacon with a physical location (the Proximity Beacon API) and extract data from nearby beacons, like a bus stop or an art exhibit (the Nearby API). They also include management tools for companies deploying fleets of beacons in physical locations.
Google isn’t creating dashboards or other management services for beacon deployments, Kulick said—which is good news for the growing number of startups that offer them. Instead, the tech giant is hoping that Eddystone formats will help those companies simplify the task of setting up and maintaining large beacon installations in public spaces like malls, stadiums, and museums. In particular, an Eddystone telemetry format will allow beacons to communicate problems, like low battery levels or other hardware failures.
Eddystone also offers Ephemeral IDs, which lower the risk of privacy leaks by encrypting the ID, so that only authorized clients can use them, and changing them frequently. If widely adopted, that may alleviate some of the privacy concerns around beacons.
Google has partnered with beacon manufacturers including Bluvision, Estimote, and Kontakt.io, who are planning to support Eddystone. (Disclosure: Kontakt.io recently participated in Wearable World Labs, a startup accelerator run by ReadWrite’s parent company, Wearable World. Wearable World holds stakes in Wearable World Labs companies.)
The significant omission from that group is Gimbal, a large beacon manufacturer that deployed devices in Apple Stores, among other retailers. Kulick said Google and Gimbal had not spoken about Eddystone. A Gimbal spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
It’s likely Apple will be reflexively hostile to a Google-backed initiative, so we may see Apple and Gimbal line up against Google and its Eddystone partners. That would be a shame, because beacons, on balance, make smartphones and mobile apps work better. A rising tide of open formats lifts all boats.
Photo by Intel Free Press