(i)Beacons in Practice

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This is the second in a series of articles on iBeacon (or Bluetooth Low Energy Beacons) - explaining how they work in practice and discussing current and future iOS and Android support.

If you need to get up to speed first, check out our introduction to iBeacons.

Recap

In the first article, we explained how bluetooth beacons (or iBeacons) constantly transmit unique identifiers, and how those identifiers can be used by mobile apps to retrieve content relevant to the location of the beacon.

How iBeacons Are Put to Work

iBeacon hardware manufacturers generally add value by providing software and services to help customers build out a complete system. For example:

  • Content Management System: Used to assign specific content (text, images, URLs, video etc) to certain beacons.
  • SDK: Vendor-supplied software embedded in mobile apps to handle recognition of beacons and automatic retrieval of their associated content.
  • API: Some vendors provide open interfaces to their systems to allow you to create more customised solutions. For example, you could create a web-based app that works in conjunction with your mobile app to shows details of beacons you've visited.
  • Demo and/or management apps: Vendors may provide mobile applications to easily demonstrate the above - retrieving and displaying a beacon's content when it is in range for example. They may also provide apps that let you adjust your beacons' settings.

These components work in conjunction with your own apps and back-end systems (CRM for example) to provide complete contextual solutions, as illustrated below.

iBeacon app architecture

Doing Your Own Thing

As explained in the previous article, beacons implement parts of the bluetooth standard that is supported by the underlying operating system (Android or iOS for example). This means that you don't need to rely on vendor-supplied software to create apps that use beacons, and also that recognition doesn't rely on matching beacons with their manufacturer's own software.

This means you have flexibility in creating your own solutions. For example, use Phonegap with a beacon plugin to create a cross-platform mobile app that accesses your beacon vendor's API to retrieve content. Or leave your vendor's software behind altogether and do whatever you like when your beacons are recognised - for example accessing a product catalog or location map.

Importantly, although not originally intended, this means that it's possible for anyone to write an app that recognises any beacon - beacon scanners can be downloaded from mobile app stores.

Platform Support

Considering how current apps display notifications, it's obvious that you don't need to actively open them in order to receive updates - these can be shown on every new event (like email), or more occasional and perhaps with user control of frequency (like Facebook and Twitter).

Beacon apps must work in the same way, and could take things even further. However there are a few key issues that need solutions to provide a frictionless experience.

  • Bluetooth must be turned on.
  • Apps should be able to notify about beacons when running in the background.
  • What if the app is not running at all, or not even installed? Can the OS prompt about beacons?

Android

Beacon apps can run on Android devices that support Bluetooth 4.0 running at least Android 4.4 (Kit Kat). Currently, 18% of Android devices run Kit Kat - these are likely to be newer devices that also support Bluetooth 4.0, though some may be older devices that have been upgraded to Kit Kat. Whether Bluetooth is on by default will depend on your device and its flavour of Android.

Apps can recognise beacons when running in the background, however this could be dependent on your vendor SDK's support if you are using it.

The forthcoming Android version (codenamed L) offers improved support including better battery life, ability for devices to act as beacons, recognition whilst in standby mode and more. This bodes well for the future, but Apple have so far led the way in platform support.

iOS

Apple invented the term iBeacon and have managed to promote the technology whilst (so far) maintaining standards across other platforms. The iPhone 4s and later (running iOS 7) are capable of running beacon apps, and this accounts for 90% of iOS users. iOS devices are also capable of acting as transmitters, which may create interesting new classes of apps that build on iBeacon standards, without necessarily using iBeacon hardware.

The release of iOS 7.1 also brought improvements and hints for the future. Apps can not only recognise beacons when in the background, iOS will recognise an app's beacons are in range when it is not running at all, and notify the user via the lock screen.

Looking forward, iOS 8 may take this further - using unique beacon IDs to direct users to download the appropriate app, even if they have never had it installed. Full details aren't known but it's clear this would mean submitting data about your beacons to the App Store along with your iOS app.

It's also worth noting that Bluetooth is now on by default on iOS devices - in fact upgrading to 7.1.2 re-enabled Bluetooth if the user had turned it off.

Finally, there is reason to believe that Apple is planning it's own iBeacon hardware.

Location in Practice

Where does location come into it? Beacons are widely regarded as devices that provide micro location - more accurate internal location than GPS or wifi. However this can be misleading - beacons have no intrinsic knowledge of their location, this information must be added by you - when beacons are placed inside a building, you will note the exact location and this becomes part of the contextual data that can be retrieved when the beacon is in range (though it could be hard-wired in your app if it's not likely to change).

Given precise locations of three nearby beacons, it is possible to calculate a precise position using trilateration.

Context is King?

Beacons therefore add a layer of context. Previously, context was given by a user's details and history, combined with factors like time and possibly approximate location from GPS (think of Google maps and other local services). Now that can be enhanced by precise, immediate location and therefore movement, for example - entering the building, at a specific car in the showroom, at a particular gate in the airport, in a certain section of stadium seating, at some museum exhibit, walking towards a certain store and so on.

This creates opportunities for new types of app providing information, utility and convenience for users that wasn't previously possible. However it also generates significant quantities of data on movements and habits of consumers - this is a potential boon for companies, but is also likely to lead to privacy concerns, even though some companies already track location by GPS and wifi with consumer opt-in.

This means that the applications that emerge in the near future, and how they handle the balance of providing consumer utility with data collection, are going to be of crucial importance in promoting adoption of the technology. Supermarket (and other) loyalty cards show that it's possible to get this right - they are widely embraced, probably because the benefits to the consumer are clear and the proposition is simple.

In the next article we'll provide a comprehensive overview of the current landscape of beacon applications and find out if they're winning over consumers.