News & Views

Opinion / Beacon Breakthrough

by Contagious Contributor
R/GA London's technology team lead, Andrew Hawkes argues that 2015 will be the year that beacons become mainstream in the real world

2015 is predicted to be a big year for beacons, with some analysts suggesting that beacons could influence up to 7% of sales at US retail stores operated by the top 100 retailers this year.

The Apple-owned iBeacon standard is the current market leader, with beacon suppliers like Estimote now established as approved hardware manufacturers, and with beacon-powered applications being rolled out by some big names.

Competition is coming…

iBeacon may have a strong toe-hold, but there is a new contender emerging, and I expect the beacon ecosystem to really heat up if/when Physical Web beacons go mainstream.

At first glance this may seem to be adding an unnecessary complication to the fledgling beacon ecosystem, but there is a key differentiator at work here:

In order to benefit from the presence of iBeacons at a specific location, users must have an accompanying app installed and Bluetooth enabled. The app can recognize specific iBeacons and do something in response (often by looking up the specific beacon ID in a database or web service first). In comparison, physical web beacons have the advantage of being able to broadcast a URL rather than an opaque 3-part ID number. Although early demo code for Physical Web beacons requires an app, the ultimate goal is to have the OS handle the interactions rather than relying an app installed for the interaction.

In theory, this makes Physical Web beacons much easier to interact with, as URLs afford transparency and interoperability.
So many devices (and a lot of software) understand what to do with URLs, and that brings with it an awful lot of power and opportunity at the device/operating system level, rather than requiring the user to have a specific app already installed.

Let battle commence!

iBeacon is a strong technology and is currently dominant due to first-mover advantage and tight integration with iOS, but Physical Web beacons using URLs ultimately won’t need app mediation, and the ability to interact with beacons directly is compelling.

The Physical Web project may not be an official Google product, but as it is an experiment from Googlers it opens up the possibility of Android getting in there early and backing it hard as an iBeacon counter-play.

So just how soon will we see these devices broadcasting from every conceivable location? It could be less than 12 months, it could be longer – the hardware and software is out there, it just needs support and adoption.