Which beacon shines brighter: Eddystone or iBeacon?
It always made sense that Google would eventually enter the beacon space. In many ways, it’s surprising that Google didn’t get there first. After all, the technology is essentially putting cookies into physical spaces and bringing many of the same technology we use on the web to the physical world. The tracking, advertising, contextual aware potential of the technology made it a Google no-brainer.
Eddystone, likely inspired by the lighthouse off the British coast, is Google’s entry into this space. According to Google, the company spoke to a number of beacon providers from the US to understand the current limitations of the technology. At the core, Eddystone is designed to be an open format for beacons, supporting multiple frame types and supporting versioning to make introducing new functionality easy.
Addressing one of the main questions we’ve come across in the beacons space, Google has introduced a feature called Ephemeral Identifiers (EIDs) that change the ID regularly. This means that only authorised clients can decode them. As a result, Eddystone beacons should be more secure as they can't be cloned, causing apps to trigger actions or content in the wrong location. This means that should someone want to use a beacon tag in their luggage or on their keys, it will only be identifiable if you are the owner. It also means added security for enterprise deployments where beacons may be used for health and safety alerts.
After two years of research and development work with beacons, the potential to use it as a key connecting technology for the Internet of Things is where we see its true potential
Aside from the word appearing on a single slide at WWDC 2013 and a few developer focused sessions, Apple hasn’t ever really promoted iBeacon. When the technology was first released, it seemed like a relatively odd play for Apple.
One of the biggest potentials for beacon technology, from a commercial perspective, was contextual advertising based on where the user was. Apple had the opportunity to use iBeacons to help improve its iAd platform, delivering contextually relevant adverts based on what a user was doing. However, this isn't Apple's core business, it's Google's.
Aside from iBeacon being for iOS only, it’s entirely controlled by Apple. This means that developers have to use workarounds or other SDKs if they want to read anything other than the unique ID number. Eddystone is open source, published on GitHub for developers to download and use in their own apps. It also is able to broadcast its ID number, a URL address and sensor telemetry.
After two years of research and development work with beacons, the potential to use the technology as a key connecting technology for the Internet of Things is where we see its true potential. This means being able to get information about the current state of assets that the beacon may be connected to.
Eddystone appears, on the surface to be far more powerful than iBeacon. Not only is it compatible with both iOS and Android, but it's also more flexible and opens up the technology to a wider section of use cases. The ability to broadcast URLs directly to a user's device is almost definitely there to help advertisers not only understand how many people have dwelled in front of an ad, but also to make it easy to visit a campaign page.
Eddystone includes new APIs to make beacons more powerful. Firstly, Nearby API makes it easy for apps to find and communicate with beacons to get specific information and context. Nearby provides a proximity API, Nearby Messages, for iOS and Android devices to discover and communicate with each other, as well as with beacons.
Nearby uses a combination of Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and inaudible sound (using the device’s speaker and microphone) to establish proximity. The basic idea is to make it easier to share content or information with other devices nearby, almost like Apple's AirDrop. Nearby doesn't require a Google Account, it's just something that sits within an app, where the user can grant permission to the functionality.
A further benefit of Eddystone is the Proximity Beacon API, helping developers to manage data associated with beacons using a REST interface. Once beacons are registered with Google's Proximity Beacon API, it's possible to associate attachments that are stored in the cloud. This makes it possible to manage and update information associated with each beacon, even after the beacons are deployed.
This also means that mobile browsers which use the Proximity API will be able to read beacon IDs, triggering contextual articles or adverts, without needing specific apps installed (other than the browser, of course). Could this point to Google Chrome including this soon?
Eddystone appears, on the surface, to be far more powerful than iBeacon
One interesting element of Proximity is that it's possible to put in the latitude and longitude coordinates, indoor floor level and Place ID, which feeds into the Google Places database and Google Maps. Eventually, this could mean that Google is able to know and direct a user to a specific product within a retail space from within Google Maps. The API also makes it possible to perform batch updates so users always have the latest information and developers or brands don't need to manually re-provision beacon hardware.
This has been one of the limitations with Apple's iBeacon. Managing large deployments of beacons has proven to be one of the biggest stumbling blocks for large scale deployments. Apple put beacon technology on the map, yet it's now Google that appears to be running with it. It makes sense. Apple's push for iBeacon has always been about the user experience and making it easier for users to interact with digital devices in physical spaces. Getting companies to understand the benefits of this is a challenge.
There is little doubt that Google's play in this area will help to make its mobile advertising more targeted, more relevant and truly contextual. Eddystone is a step in the right direction. Beacons still have a huge amount of untapped potential, caused by companies who aren't quite sure what to do with them. Eddystone is definitely what the industry needs. It's no longer just Apple enabling better interactions but also its biggest competitor.