Eddystone in Practice

Google recently unveiled their bluetooth beacon standard called Eddystone (after the lighthouse), that lets users receive URLs broadcast straight to their phone without needing an app.

It has been viewed as a competitor to Apple's iBeacon, but how different is it? And how does it work in practice today? Finally, what's the future for this technology?

Eddystone Primer

Back in September 2014, Google announced their Physical Web initiative, at the time a fairly abstract notion that devices could broadcast URLs and you could Walk up and use anything (TM). Notably, it was accompanied by a GitHub repo and clearly something real was being developed.

Then apparently out of the blue, in July 2015, they announced the Eddystone standard. Simultaneously, the big 3 beacon manufacturers (Estimote, Kontakt.io and Radius Networks) announced support (with many others like Gimbal and Bluecats now on board), making the physical web A Real Thing.

We won't get too technical in this article, the key thing about Eddystone beacons is that they can broadcast a URL, but they actually transmit three types of information continuously:

  • UID - Unique identification of the beacon comprising namespace and identifier
  • URL
  • TLM - Telemetry information about the beacon, such as battery voltage and temperature.

These are known as frames.

What About iBeacon? (Google vs Apple)

Apple's iBeacon standard has been around since 2013, and both standards are built on Bluetooth Low Energy. So, from a hardware perspective, devices are very similar. However, the structure of the data transmitted is different, meaning that software on any receiving device must be able to recognise and decode the different frame types being broadcast.

Eddystone's UID frame is analogous to iBeacon's single frame type, which includes unique identifiers and a value representing the beacon's transmission power. See our iBeacon primer for more details.

Importantly, iBeacons cannot transmit URLs - typically the unique ID is used to look up associated information, either held offline in the receiving app, or retrieved from the web. A mobile app is therefore absolutely required, since the unique IDs contain no intrinsic information.

Current Support

Google ensured you could buy Eddystone beacons from Day One by partnering with hardware vendors, however software support was conspicuous by its absence. The supporting software is being developed in the open, and is available on GitHub, for Android and iOS. Anyone can develop their own Eddystone app now, but curiously the only app currently offering support for real-world deployments is the latest version of Google's Chrome browser on iOS.

Yes, you read that right - Eddystone is not yet supported in Android or in the Android version of Chrome! We'll show how it looks to iOS users below, but first of all - how do you get your URLs onto your beacons?

Configuring Eddystone Beacons

Typically, beacon vendors will offer a management system when you purchase their hardware. This lets you configure basic settings of your beacons, and may offer extended features such as associating content or data with beacons, to be retrieved via an API using the beacon's unique ID.

The picture shows Kontakt.io's management interface for Eddystone beacons - you can specify a URL, but it must not exceed 18 bytes once encoded. The Eddystone standard includes a scheme for compressing URLs to make them a bit more compact, but in practice shortened URLs are likely to be used.

The information held by the vendor about the beacon then needs to be synced with the device, for example by using a management app when in the vicinity of the beacon. This will retrieve the URL and other beacon data online from the vendor and write it to the beacon over bluetooth.

The User Experience

Now that you have your URL on an Eddystone beacon, the only way to currently make use of it is with the latest version of Chrome on iOS. Any app can access the Bluetooth system and therefore monitor for in-range beacons, including Eddystone beacons, even in the background. Typically notifications are used to alert users about the presence of beacons. Chrome uses the Today area in iOS - users are not intrusively prompted, but if Eddystone beacons are present when they view the Today area, Chrome will display information about them.

Clicking on the notification opens the URL in Chrome.

What Does This All Mean

Optimistically, this means that Eddystone applications can be deployed now, albeit within limited parameters. Users must have an iOS device with Chrome installed, and be aware of the deployment so that they will check their notifications for contextual information when in range.

As an example, in a retail context, Eddystone beacons could be configured with URLs showing product details, specs, reviews, as well as options that may not be available in-store such as additional colours, sizes and so on. If users were aware that they could do so, they would simply check their mobile device for the availability of this information if they wanted to find out more about a product.

Of course, retailers and other organisations could also build Eddystone into their existing apps and alert users with more intrusive notifications. However, Eddystone provides little benefit here since a connected app could use the unique IDs of an iBeacon in the same way (to direct a user to information online).

It could be that such contextual location-specific information becomes so commonplace that checking your device for it becomes second nature, but that's going to require more widespread support.

Future Development

We can see that it's early days for this technology, so how will it develop in future?

The ability to broadcast a URL to a mobile device only really becomes useful when it's either a) supported by every browser as a standard - but then, which one gives you the notification? or b) Supported in the underlying operating system.

We think that Google must be embedding Eddystone and physical web support in Android, but there's no sign of it coming soon. The next version of Android (Marshmallow) was announced recently and is released in a few days, but no such support has been mentioned so far.

So why is this? It's likely due to consumer concerns over privacy, and nervousness over the prospect of mobile users being bombarded with notifications they never asked for (Minority Report style). Android needs a way to surface these types of notifications that consumers feel they have control over - for example location- and/or time-based opt-in. This means you could turn notifications on or off for specific stores or malls, or perhaps turn them on at the weekend but off during work hours. Another possibility could be controlling permissions by domain of the URL being broadcast.

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This is closely aligned to the concept of Web Notifications. These are not that widely used yet but, for example, eBay and Facebook can alert you in certain browsers about activity of interest, after obtaining your consent. Importantly, notifications can be shown even if you don't have your browser open.

All of the major desktop browsers (apart from IE) support web notifications, and support was recently added to Chrome on Android (but not iOS), with the stock Android browser offering partial support.

The picture isn't quite complete, but we can see where this is going - if you've consented to receive web notifications from a site, and you are in the vicinity of an Eddystone beacon broadcasting a URL for that site, Chrome could alert you with a notification, even if it wasn't currently running.

This enables a purely web-based system of location-awareness together with notifications and contextual content delivery on your mobile, with no requirement for an app other than your web browser. We can imagine that on opening one Eddystone-delivered URL, further beacons in the same venue will simply modify the already-open content, providing a potentially app-like experience for indoor navigation (for example).

However, after introducing iBeacon and doing a lot to promote adoption, Apple is notable by its absence in supporting this pure-web future. That's probably because Apple Hates the Web, a topic that we'll be writing more on soon :)

The Great Indoors

Accurate and up-to-date maps of internal spaces are a prerequisite of many iBeacon applications. Recently, the big players in mapping have been extending their coverage indoors. So what's the current state of indoor mapping, and what are their intentions?

Google Maps

Google has indoor maps of over 10,000 locations worldwide - a list of examples by country can be found here. They appear to be a mixture of transport locations (such as airports and large stations), retail outlets and cultural institutions. Property owners can upload their own floor plans subject to approval. Owners are encouraged to then use a special tool to walk around and capture all of the existing signals indicating position in the space, such as Wi-Fi and mobile networks.

It's clear that maps of large transport locations could enhance Google's transit directions, but its intentions for retail and cultural institutions are unclear. Indoor maps are currently available on desktop and Android devices - a recent update to the Google Maps app permissions included access to Bluetooth and this is a strong hint of coming integration of beacons with maps.

The example below shows the British Museum in London - internal spaces are shown and labelled, and there is a floor selector on the right.

Apple Maps

Predictably, Apple has been more forthright about the integration of iBeacon with internal mapping, but more veiled about its progress and intentions. Owners of larger venues with Wi-Fi throughout can use Maps Connect to add "complete, accurate, and scaled reference maps" of their venue.

Little more has been announced publicly, so we don't know the scale of Apple's indoor mapping efforts, but they hired the CEO of an indoor mapping company last year, and a number of patents related to indoor mapping have come to light recently (like this one).

Bing Maps

Microsoft appeared to have the lead on its competitors in indoor mapping, having been adding them as venue maps since late 2010, starting with large shopping malls. However, there seem to be only around 5000 such maps, spread across a wider range of venue types.
It could be that, after an initial focus on retail, indoor mapping has been de-prioritised by Microsoft, and it does not seem to be possible to upload your own maps.

We've shown the British Museum again for comparison - the level of detail is similar and individual floors can also be selected.

Nokia HERE Maps

Nokia's HERE mapping division was not acquired by Microsoft as part of the Mobile Devices and Services business, and currently appears to be the strongest contender in indoor (or venue) mapping.

Venue maps have just been released out of beta in the HERE Android app, but Nokia has been building its collection since 2012, and now has more than 100,000 such maps across 70 countries. The types of venue represented appear similar to their competitors but with a stronger emphasis on retail. In 2013, 70% of venue maps were for retail locations. It's telling that HERE does not have a venue map for the British Museum, however it does have indoor maps for all 6 large shopping malls in and around Glasgow, the 4th largest city in the UK.

The example below shows one such mall in the HERE app. Floors can be selected, and the map seems quite complete in terms of assignment of retailers to specific units.

It's unclear whether venue owners can upload their own maps, but Nokia seems to be aggressively expanding coverage on its own. Also unclear is whether Nokia has any specific plans for iBeacon integration - the app permissions do not currently include Bluetooth control.


All of the big players in maps have made some inroads (so to speak) in indoor mapping. As Apple has learned, success with maps requires accuracy and reliability that users can trust, as well as comprehensive coverage. It's therefore hardly surprising that they're keeping their indoor offering somewhat under wraps until it's really ready for prime time. So far, it seems they're relying on business owners to do the leg work, but they could be expanding their coverage in secret.

Meanwhile, Nokia's HERE has quietly become the biggest player with indoor coverage 10x that of its nearest rival (Google) and a mobile app gaining significant (and well deserved) traction.

Their plans clearly involve a retail play, and it's very likely that could incorporate iBeacon. However they may be relying on 3rd parties to build on HERE as a platform, since they offer comprehensive developer APIs that include venue maps.

Beacon Wars (?)

Continuing our iBeacon series, we're going to try to clear up any confusion around naming and standards - what are the differences (if any) between Bluetooth Beacons, iBeacons and AltBeacons? Will the original standard survive or will proprietary enhancements win out?

Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) Beacons

Bluetooth Low Energy is part of the Bluetooth 4.0 spec that defines a number of profiles, describing what particular types of device should be able to do and how they should work. Bluetooth 4.0 has also been given the smart branding.

The devices that have come to be known as beacons (or iBeacons) implement the proximity profile (finalised in 2011) that lets other devices detect when they are nearby.

Importantly, this means beacon behaviour is well defined and described by a standard, so that devices and software from different companies can work together. So why does Apple need to certify products before they can be iBeacon branded?


iBeacon is a brand and trademark applied to bluetooth low energy beacon technology by Apple, who certify products as iBeacon compatible, but do not manufacture iBeacons themselves (yet). Companies can apply to carry the branding on their products and will be given the required specifications only under a Non-Disclosure Agreement.

The only technical difference appears to be that iBeacons should transmit an Apple-defined prefix, that would not be required to comply with the original BLE standard.

So, right now, there is no practical difference between iBeacons and non-Apple certified BLE beacons. However the fact that Apple has introduced an identifier means that they could potentially lock down iOS to only recognise iBeacon certified devices. Though this might seem unlikely, I believe it's inevitable they will try to differentiate the feature set of "iBeacons" from plain old BLE beacons in some way in the near future. It also means that you won't be seeing any Android software or hardware branded as iBeacon anytime soon (more on this in the next section).

Finally, it's worth noting that Apple have been granted a number of patents around iBeacon technology (with more likely to emerge), and have made filings relating to an Apple iBeacon device.

Whether Apple's iBeacon certification continues to be compatible with the open standards, or if they will see enough commercial opportunity in differentiation remains to be seen.


One side effect of Apple's certification requirements was that companies had to pull or rename Android software they may have been attaching the iBeacon label to. This led to Radius networks dropping their iBeacon Software Development Kit for Android.

They themselves brand their own beacons RadBeacon, however they are in fact Apple certified as iBeacon compliant.


Perhaps as a result of the above, Radius Networks seemed to sense a move towards proprietary customisation and away from Android, and introduced the AltBeacon open standard (more) as an open alternative to iBeacon.

Because there is no open and interoperable specification for proximity beacons, Radius Networks has authored the AltBeacon specification as a proposal for how to solve this problem.

This specification is simple and compliant with the original Bluetooth 4.0 standard, using data originally defined as Manufacturer Specific Advertising Data to squeeze a bit more into the messages transmitted by by AltBeacons.

Since the standard is open, manufacturers can build products that work with each other, but there is also scope for them to add proprietary data that could (for example) lock their own hardware to their own software, or be used to provide additional features.

It seems unlikely that AltBeacon will be widely adopted as it's attracting little attention, however it could gain traction if Apple attempts to significantly diverge from Bluetooth standards with iBeacon.

What About Everyone Else?

Beacon manufacturers generally seem to be obtaining iBeacon certification whilst continuing to tout the cross-platform nature of their products.

  • Kontakt.io - "Works with iBeacon, Android, and Bluetooth Smart"
  • Qualcomm/Gimbal - "APIs for both iOS and Android"
  • Estimote - "Full iOS and Android compatibility"

This is good news, with suppliers adding value via their software offerings, end-to-end solutions and product ecosystems rather than attempting to hijack the standard.

What Does This All Mean?

Right now, iBeacon is an exercise in branding, with hardware and software from major manufacturers able to work together using the original Bluetooth standard for proximity. Further, the biggest players seem to be promoting this fact rather than trying to diverge in order to stand out.

However, it's worth remembering that Apple devices dominate others in the potential audience for beacon-related products and services. When we wrote about this before an estimated 90% of iPhone owners vs 18% of Android owners could use beacon apps.

Currently those figures are around 45% for Android and 96% for iOS, and with Apple leading deployments, and better integrating the experience of using beacon-enabled apps in its operating system, they may have the leverage to dictate future developments.

The Future of iBeacons

This is the concluding article in a series of articles on iBeacons (AKA Bluetooth Low Energy beacons), it discusses imminent changes to the way iBeacons work and presents some ideas on how things might develop in future.

iBeacons Today

Our last article covered the range of iBeacon applications that exist today in various industries. In the last year or so, the pace of deployment has been rapid and, more recently, there have been some interesting developments in the industry and the technology itself.

In July, kontakt.io received $2M investment from Sunstone capital, with venture capitalist Max Niederhofer of the company saying

Bluetooth Low Energy and iBeacon are the building blocks of the next wave of computing...

And, with a recent report predicting there will be a 60 million unit market in 2019, widespread adoption looks increasingly likely. Hardware costs per unit are also decreasing.

Whilst not building directly on iBeacon technology, Apple's recently announced mobile payments system is already going hand in hand with iBeacon deployments and this makes perfect sense given Apple's support for the platform, and the fact that it extends the retailers' connection with their customers from the point of sale to their whole shopping experience.

What is Changing

In a previous article we explained that (at least) 90% of iPhone users are able to use iBeacon, a significantly higher figure than for Android users (around 18%), and Apple have led the way in making subtle changes to remove potential barriers to iBeacon app usage.

This hints at more operating system level support, and one could imagine actions being triggered in a more automated way than at present. iOS 8 already prompts users about iBeacon apps and this could be extended such that beacons could act as operating system-level triggers.

The need for a dedicated app is currently a barrier to entry for smaller outfits - could the operating system and web browser combine to remove the need for a dedicated app? This is a little like web notifications that are implemented by a number of browsers, though notably none of the mobile browsers yet. As an example - eBay can alert me via my installed desktop browser (but outside of any web page) about items I'm watching that are ending, on mobile this could remove the need for a dedicated app to receive such notifications and we could imagine something similar for iBeacon-related alerts and content.

It may also be significant that Apple has changed the way their devices connect to wifi, meaning that they can no longer be identified and tracked in that way. This means that beacons are the only way to physically track users at a location.

New Types of Beacon

Will beacons themselves change? Current indications are that they will certainly evolve.

Estimote recently announced stickers that function as iBeacons, with additional temperature and motion sensors enabling new applications. It's intended that they can be attached to moving objects that could then be tracked as they passed monitoring stations, or whilst they're in an app user's vicinity (like packages, or children for example!)

Kontakt.io are releasing cloud beacons including wifi connectivity. This allows these beacons to transmit analytics data and provide a gateway for managing other regular beacons in their vicinity. However, wifi requires power and they must be plugged in to a power outlet, or at least recharged regularly.

These developments maintain backwards compatibility but it's likely the strain between adding functionality and maintaining standards compliance will likely increase as vendors try to differentiate themselves in a market where hardware costs per unit are rapidly heading towards negligible.

Users Become Moving Beacons

Apple devices can already act as iBeacons themselves - transmitting information just like a mobile beacon. Few apps have built on this yet, but it means that app users can be constantly announcing their presence and (masked) identity.

Mingleton uses this feature for location-based personal connections, and many such applications for conferencing and events can be imagined.

A New Network

Venture capitalist Max Niederhofer further commented on his company's investment in Kontakt.io:

...I see this as an infrastructure build-out play, where Beacons are the routers and pipes of a new network infrastructure on which we’ll see some very interesting applications.

...From a VC perspective, this is a bit like Cisco in the late 80s. We’re building the hardware and software that is the backbone of the new network.

This may seem like exaggeration, but given

  • large scale deployment of geo-located iBeacons and others attached to known things,
  • a large base of beacon-enabled apps, and
  • the ability for users of those apps to transmit as well as receive beacon data,

it's certainly tempting to consider a new type of global network, working in conjunction with those that exist today.

This could be viewed as a geographical layer for the web, enhancing context with location; and extends the Internet of Things beyond powered devices requiring wired or wifi internet connections.

Beacon manufacturer Radius Networks has an app that allows users to submit beacon locations, and over 150,000 such locations have been mapped, giving an indication of geographical distribution of beacon deployments today.

Beacon Services

With the deployment of a new type of infrastructure, there will be a rise in companies providing complementary services. For example:

  • Beacon battery and outage monitoring, along with replacement.
  • Internal mapping and beacon locating (using devices like Google's project tango tablet).
  • Optimisation of beacon networks.
  • Cataloging of located beacon identifiers (for use by competitors, for example).

Real-World Analytics

It's already possible to track visitors to beacon-enabled places to provide data on routes taken and so on. This could let retailers optimise layouts for sales, galleries identify popular as well as less-visited exhibits and malls identify shopping patterns.

This is analogous to the situation when website owners had only their web logs for analysis. It might have seemed crazy then to suggest that a company could secure a presence on the majority of websites, such that they could track visitors between them - but that's exactly what Google did by offering analytics (in combination with other products). An even crazier suggestion might have been offering your potential competitors space on your website, but that's now common via online advertising (in simplistic terms).

Another analogy from the web would be the move from company- or niche-specific forums and communities to mass adoption of a few social media sites as the places to share information and discuss common interests, and even for companies to manage their customer relations.

Similar developments are likely in geographical analytics - if a compelling enough service is offered, companies may give up data on their own beacon networks and physical customer movements such that they can gain wider intelligence than they would otherwise be able to. This would come from the aggregation of data about many beacon installations.

Taking this to an unlikely conclusion - imagine a retailer being able to target promotions at competitors' customers whilst at known locations in their stores. Or a brand being able to target customers whilst viewing their products at a range of retailers.

It could be that sectors other than retail (where commercial sensitivity is less of an issue), or collection of only anonymised data will provide greater opportunities for such aggregated applications.

Beyond Single Apps to Meta-Apps

Currently, specific companies or organisations create their own beacon installations, and integrate beacon-enabled features into their own mobile apps. however, this is not scalable to take full advantage of the potential of the new network described above - smaller stores, venues and other locations will not have their own mobile apps, and even if they did, consumers would be deluged with niche location-aware apps.

As touched on above, the concept of aggregation is so powerful that what we will term meta-apps are going to be in the strongest position to give most convenience and utility for users, and the most valuable data for businesses. The term arises from comparisons with (for example) meta search engines such as comparison websites for financial products, travel and so on. These take data from many individual websites to provide an aggregated service and data - offering consumers the best deals, and businesses new sales channels and data.

This can already been seen in a limited way amongst the many shopping malls who have implemented iBeacons. They can potentially provide better services to visitors across all of their tenant retailers in a single app. There have also been a number of local applications, aggregating the retailers in a particular geographic area (the Brixton pound app for example).


We've explained that the highly competitive nature of retail doesn't necessarily prevent meta-apps emerging and there are already signs of this trend developing.

InMarket’s Mobile to Mortar product claims that it can reach 40M shoppers via Earth's Largest iBeacon Network across locations in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. InMarket doesn't have its own consumer app, but has arrangements with other app owners to embed the technology and thereby provide a conduit to consumers (such as CheckPoints and Epicurious).

Other companies pursuing similar tactics include ShopkickVente Privee in France and Appflare in the UK, targeting convenience stores.

Other meta-type companies in retail such as QuidCo would be well placed to use iBeacon networks (they already offer some location-based features via GPS).

Other Industries

It's easy to envisage similar meta-style apps for other industries. For example:

  • Services for travellers taking advantage of iBeacon installations across airports and other transit locations.
  • With networks of beacons in restaurants, bars and entertainment venues, new types of app for socialising are enabled, providing joined-up data and services for venues and patrons alike.
  • Beacon-enabled sports venues could facilitate new meta apps for sports fans, who travel to different team venues.
  • An app for iBeacon-enabled museums, galleries and other cultural venues could provide personalised tours, and use your visiting and viewing habits to suggest new exhibitions and events, as well as providing footfall data.

New Types of Application

The applications described above are of a familiar type, taken to their logical meta conclusions. however, completely new types of application could also be possible.

For example, in the same way that Google's mapping efforts enabled revolutionary applications, aggregated information about iBeacon networks on a large scale could facilitate assistants for the visually impaired, providing guidance at any iBeacon-enabled location and internal navigation - providing route finding in unfamiliar (iBeacon-enabled) buildings.


We've tried to give a sense of where iBeacon is heading in the near future, and some thoughts on how the technology and its applications might develop in the longer term.

The pace of deployment, and perceived value to consumers of the apps that emerge, will be crucial over the next year or so in securing widespread adoption for iBeacon applications. Businesses must prioritise service and utility for users in the short term, if they are to realise the potential gains of a new location-aware channel and the data it generates going forward.

If you'd like to discuss an iBeacon application, get in touch!

iBeacon Applications

This is the third in a series of articles on iBeacons (or Bluetooth Low Energy Beacons), describing the current application landscape, by industry sector.

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

Real World Applications

Though iBeacon is still a relatively new technology, there have been a number of high profile deployments. We've selected some of these to give a flavour of the different types of application being implemented with iBeacons today.

Many of these share common features and we've tried to highlight unusual or interesting ones. It's clear that many organisations are in a trial phase to establish which features are going to prove compelling and engage customers, whilst not proving too intrusive.

The end goal might be that consumers of all kinds embrace location-aware apps and messaging, so that companies can reap the benefits of the data generated as a side effect. However, right now the focus seems to be on providing or enhancing service and thereby promoting adoption.

It's important to note that these examples all follow a pattern of being specific to a company or organisation, with the requirement that users have installed that organisation's mobile app.


Retail is currently being seen as the major use case for beacons, and it's easy to see why. In practical terms, navigation can be problematic in large stores and shopping malls - providing location-aware assistance is an obvious application.

However, paired with loyalty card data, stores would be able to push offers, suggestions and reminders targeted not only by location, but also by purchase history and buying patterns.

Taking this full circle, if retail venues can successfully promote adoption of such location-aware apps, they stand to gain huge volumes of new data on consumers' in-store habits that can be used to optimise layouts and future promotions.


Apple was a pioneer in this area in 2013, deploying iBeacons in 254 US stores. These worth with the Apple Store app and the focus is on providing customer service - for example, providing additional product info and notifications about Genius Bar appointments or repairs ready for pick up. Apple have said that they do not collect data about customers' movements.

They are currently updating the beacons in their stores - a move that is likely tied to a mobile payments initiative and the release of the iPhone 6.

More Retail

Food and Drink

iBeacons could guide patrons to their seat, flag that they are seated, offer mobile ordering and payment, and work in conjunction with existing online management systems to streamline processes and enhance data on customer activities.


Arts and Culture


And More


Clearly there are already many applications being built using iBeacons in a range of industries and contexts. However this is only the beginning, and it should also be obvious that there are countless opportunities in diverse areas like education, conferences, accessibility, logistics, people management, healthcare, gaming and public services.

There is evidence that Apple is continuing to support and further the technology, and we'll be looking out for hints amongst the announcements at Apple's iPhone 6 event tomorrow!

In our next post, we're going to take a look at the future of iBeacon...

(i)Beacons in Practice

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.


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.

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?


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.


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.

Introduction to iBeacons

iBeacon is Apple's branding of the Bluetooth Low Energy beacon specification (AKA Bluetooth Smart proximity sensing) that is part of the Bluetooth 4.0 standard. In the first of a series of articles on the technology, this introduction explains how beacons work, describes typical uses and gives some pointers for further reading.

What is an iBeacon?

The Bluetooth 4.0 spec defines a number of profiles that describe what particular types of device should be able to do and how they should work. The devices that have come to be known as beacons (or iBeacons) implement the proximity profilethat lets other devices detect when they are nearby.

Physically, they are small, inexpensive devices containing a battery, some circuitry and a Bluetooth LE transmitter/receiver. However, any Bluetooth 4.0 compatible device can function as a beacon (for example - laptops, smartphones and so on) as long as it communicates in the correct way.

What Does it Do?

Beacons transmit information about themselves at regular intervals (typically every second or so) - this is known as advertising. There is a trade off between range, frequency of transmission and battery life - as an example, a beacon my transmit every second with a range of 5m or so with a battery life of around 2 years.

The data transmitted is very small, its only purpose being to identify the beacon and its distance:

  • *UUID: * This uniquely identifies a set of beacons and would typically be used to detect that a beacon belonged to a particular company (EG: f7826da6-4fa2-4e98-8024-bc5b71e0893e).
  • *Major number: * A number between 0 and 65535, generally used to identify a particular geographical location.
  • *Minor number: * Also between 0 and 65535, identifies the particular beacon at the location.
  • *TX power: * A calibration value that should be equal to the strength of the device's signal measured 1m away.

On the receiving end, this information is accompanied by an RSSI (Received Signal Strength Indication) value, which can be used along with the TX power value from the beacon to estimate its physical distance.

How Are They Used?

The information transmitted by beacons is fixed, one way and extremely simple - so how do they become useful? Firstly, an application is required that recognises when beacons are in range. The iPhone 4s and later (running iOS 7) and Android devices that support Bluetooth 4.0 running at least Android 4.4 (Kit Kat) can run beacon-aware apps. The device also needs to have Bluetooth turned on.

Beacons provide physical context for an app that knows (or can find out) where beacons have been placed. Specific beacon IDs will correspond to certain locations, but the signal strength of multiple beacons can also be used to provide accurate internal positioning via trilateration.
This becomes powerful when combined with dynamic information via the internet.

For example, a shopping mall could install beacons at known locations. Its app would then be able to locate a user on a map and give directions, however it the app could also request dynamic information about a particular location. This could include current events nearby or targetted marketing such as promotions when someone is near the food court and it's around lunchtime.

More Applications

The next article in the series will describe more sophisticated applications and ways in which iBeacons are being put to use.

Further Reading