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Overview of Beacon Options in 2015/2016

Apple’s iBeacon

ibeaconThe original “beacon” standard, iBeacon is Apple’s branding for a Bluetooth Low Emission (BLE) protocol, which is essentially a standard for emitting a three-component identifier consisting of UUID, Major ID and Minor ID. The identifier is sometimes referred to as unique, but in fact any number of beacons can be configured with the same identifier. This permits a degree of redundancy.

Two other ways in which a beacon’s configuration can vary, according to this standard, are the interval and the transmission power (txPower) at which the identifier is emitted. If a particular beacon manufacturer offers any other configuration options, then these will generally be vendor-specific. The beacon’s battery level is typically also available, though the format of this information is not part of the iBeacon standard – something that along with other forms of telemetry (status) information is likely to change in the future.

Because the basic iBeacon standard does not allow for any more information to be included in the communication between a beacon and a detecting device, it is down to the device to make sense of the identifier. Applications therefore invariably use the identifier to look up some information. The information may be held on the device itself or it may be held on a server, with the content of interest being returned via an API.

Though iBeacon is a trademark of Apple, any device capable of BLE, which communicates the aforementioned identifiers, can participate in iBeacon-based applications. This includes Android and Windows devices and not just Apple’s i-devices.

One further observation is that Apple’s devices (the more recent generations of devices, at least) are themselves iBeacons. This can also lead to some interesting applications.

All of the leading beacon manufacturers support the iBeacon protocol.

Google’s Eddystone

eddystone-460wGoogle’s answer to iBeacon is Eddystone. It relies on the same type of hardware as iBeacon. However, beacons supporting the Eddystone protocol, instead of emitting a three-component identifier, emit an opaque ID, a URL and telemetry information called Eddystone-UID, Eddystone-URL and Eddystone-TLM respectively.

If an Eddystone beacon communicates a URL to an app, then this can be used directly. This is in contrast to iBeacon’s three-component identifier, which is typically used to look up some information – often a URL. Eddystone therefore potentially bypasses one technical step (the lookup), though this by itself does not result in any benefit for the end user.

By standardising the communication of telemetry information, such as battery level, Eddystone has also addressed a shortcoming of the current version of the iBeacon standard, which leaves the format of this information to the Beacon vendor (making it somewhat more arduous to manage suits of beacons from different vendors.)

Samsung’s Placedge

placeedgeThough interest in beacon-based applications is growing, one of the biggest inhibitors to uptake is the fact that, in order to profit from the presence of beacons, one needs a dedicated app to listen out for them. No app, no notification.

To address this problem, Samsung announced a technology in 2014, which they call Placedge. Samsung phones – only Samsung phones with a special extension baked into a proprietary version of Android – listen out for any specially configured beacon in their vicinity. Thus a store could potentially send messages to customers, even if the customer has never downloaded the store’s mobile app.

This concept is obviously particularly appealing to organisations, which do not have an app, and which have no intention or ability to create one. It is also of interest to organisations that do have an app, and would like an opportunity to inform potential users of its existence.

However, the approach undoubtedly increases the risk of targeting members of the public, who have absolutely no interest whatsoever in being targeted. This, in turns, risks alienation, rather than providing something useful.

A further shortcoming of the Placedge solution is that it targets only Samsung device owners, losing out on a large swath of iOS users as well as owners of other Android devices.

These shortcomings may explain why very little time has been given to Placedge in the tech media since its launch.