In their complexity, beacons reach maturity

Bluetooth beacons could take proximity services to the next level.

It is now four years since Apple launched iBeacon, its take on Bluetooth positioning, to developers at WWDC 2013. 

As ever, Apple was not first to the party. Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) transmitters were already on the market, trying to convert the last of the consumers who still believed that switching off their Bluetooth would save smartphone battery. 

But, whilst the hardware was available, developing software experiences for location-based services remained difficult. What iBeacon promised to do was to simplify writing these services. 

Four years on, then, why do proximity services still seem to be missing in action? 

Despite feverish initial optimism about using mobile indoor positioning for frictionless payment, marketing and other services, if you look around the market today, there is a paucity of proximity sensor deployment. Some companies launched projects to experiment with smartphone alerts when customers walk in to stores, but these were to be just the beginning, and are themselves few and far between. 

Why hasn’t the technology gone mainstream? There are several historic reasons for the roadblock. 

First, although the underlying technology is straightforward, developing for it is a minefield. We have watched as many big companies bought hundreds of beacons, tested them, hit a brick wall and abandoned the idea. iBeacon has languished and it has taken intermediary providers like Kontakt.io and our own MapsPeople to simplify development. 

Second, the technology was stillborn. The software required for phones to interact with beacons has been baked in only to apps themselves. That means, for someone to get a notification about a sale item when they pass by a store, they must already have the store’s app installed. People just don’t download apps in this trigger-happy manner anymore. 

Numerous different flavours of beacon technology have since come on-stream, promising improvements. But this question for a solution now looks like fragmentation, and, from our conversations with customers, it has caused confusion and further inertia. 

Google’s rival Eddystone system is iBeacon-compatible but more fully-featured, including working in mobile web browsers and allowing Google Maps to show ads for nearby stores with beacons. Android’s upcoming Instant Apps feature, which will allow instant downloading of partial apps from Play Store, will further spur usage of proximity-aware apps. But many would-be users remain confused about selecting Google over Apple. 

Meanwhile, new positioning technologies are already emerging to overcome beacons altogether. 

- Philips has a technology that embeds super-precise location sensing in to overhead LED lights. Already deployed in several supermarkets in Europe, it promises to clear beacons’ hurdles - but, like beacons, it only works in apps, and Philips already has incompatible rivals emerging in to the same area.  

- Many people think WiFi is a viable beacon alternative. Chips in routers from the likes of Cisco already support it. WiFi routers are far more ubiquitous than beacon emitters, and don’t require people in buildings actually make a connection; only that they leave their phone’s WiFi switched on. The trouble is, latency. An iPhone may be on a given WiFi network for 30 seconds before it refreshes its signal - long enough to have walked 100 metres away.  

- So some are looking to new magnetic field technology instead. This tech is truly impressive, using the Earth’s magnetic field to map out the layout of buildings, and using fluctuations within them to locate individuals inside. Chinese internet giant Baidu has invested heavily in one such operator, Indoor Atlas, of Finland. However, the system is also problematic - whilst a setup may function well for the first week, the inherent magnetic fields within may change significantly as furniture, people and walls move.  

All of this has created significant consumer uncertainty. In other technologies, you find standards and bodies to administer them. Online, you have the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), which oversees standards like TCP/IP, which makes the internet tick. In electronics, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) gave the world the set of rules which harmonise WiFi technologies. Even where there are few imposed imposed. Bluetooth was put forward by a group of interested companies, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group. 

Indoor positioning has not known such collaboration or commonality. Which is not to say that many of the things that brands want to to using the opportunity are not possible. Indeed, whilst the competing technologies themselves do not offer integration, our company and others have developed systems that can use competing standards in the same implementation - where the perfect technology may not be available, a development can fall-back on an alternative, less accurate positioning method. 

All of this may have held back implementation. But there are also positives in the proliferation. A market with this much fragmentation is a market on the cusp of consolidation. 

We have seen it before. Before standardisation, the railway system was a confusing mess of different track and gauge sizes for different trains. Trains were not able to travel from one region to another, confining travel to local travel. When tracks were standardised, however, the world opened up. And try to imagine what outdoor navigation was like before cartographers all agreed on where the poles were, which way was up and what longitude and latitude should represent. 

The same is now ready to happen in indoor positioning. The market cannot sustain this fragmentation for much longer. At this point in the curve of every technology adoption, there comes a moment of clarity, when the fragmentation is mopped up and everybody settles on the way, a single way, forward. 

That may be through multi-method implementations, or it may be in the emergence of a winning standard. 

I believe it will come from passive crowdsourced fingerprinting. Rather than rely on a separate and diverse range of beacons, consumers themselves - or, rather, their mobile phones - will become always-on super-beacons. 

For example, if Google enabled Google Maps to read local beacons and to feed users’ own location data back in to the system, the network would benefit from enhanced location information. 

Would Google really ingest consumers’ data in this way? It has already done it once before. When StreetView cars scan the roads, they don’t just photograph streets, they are also sucking up information about WiFi routers, and assigning a geographical location to those devices. 

If the same technique was applied to beacons, we may all get to benefit from a richer, unified ecosystem. 

Image Credit: Ekaphon Maneechot / Shutterstock