Google rolled out this week a new Bluetooth LE (low energy) beacon technology that competes directly with Apple's industry-leading iBeacon offering and also does a lot more than iBeacon.
It's called Eddystone. And it's a big deal, for two reasons.
First, beacons have unleashed new capabilities for automation, virtual assistant technology, retail applications, social media and much more.
One way to look at what's great about beacons is to think about the benefits of GPS, then multiply those benefits tenfold. Right now, GPS tells your phone that you're on a street in Manhattan.
But beacon technology can tell you that you're at a specific taxi stand and automatically present you with fares, where the nearest taxi is and nearby alternatives. Beacons make everything vastly more contextual, from augmented reality to wearable computers.
The second reason Eddystone is a big deal is that it's the first beacon platform done right, because it's far more capable than any previous platform as well as open source and cross-platform.
Beacon technology is all about context. So before I tell you more about Eddystone, let's first review a few points about beacons in general.
Beacon technology has been widely misunderstood by the public, and its enormous benefits are largely lost even on IT and business professionals as well as developers.
Regular beacons use Bluetooth LE to enable high-resolution location data indoors or outdoors.
The existence of a beacon, which can run on a watch battery and cost less than $10, can enable an app to know when the phone it's running on—and therefore the user—has entered the "zone" the beacon covers. It also gives apps the ability to estimate their distance from the beacon.
Actual beacon products are made by dozens of manufacturers, and these companies mostly support existing standards and sometimes standards of their own. A single beacon can support multiple standards at once, which is great news for companies that want to implement them without being locked in.
Beacons themselves collect no data. All they do is broadcast data via Bluetooth LE, which can be received by a smartphone and used by an app. A beacon can't detect a nearby smartphone, but smartphones can detect a nearby beacon.
The accuracy of beacon signals varies based on interference. Other radio waves in the same spectrum or in a space occupied by lots of people can reduce the beacon’s accuracy.
Apple rolled out its iBeacon protocol two years ago, becoming first mainstream device and operating system maker to establish beacon technology as a fundamental, mainstream mobile application option. It's a pretty standard beacon technology, but also proprietary. Each beacon broadcasts or transmits a universally unique, 128-bit identifier (UUID) at a maximum rate of once per second.
Although iBeacon is theoretically usable with Android and other phones since any Bluetooth LE-compatible device can detect an iBeacon device, Apple has gone to some lengths to exclude non-Apple devices from participating fully in the iBeacon universe.
In early October of last year, Google revealed a project called The Physical Web and posted the details about it on GitHub. The project's ambition is to create an open platform to enable people to walk up to supporting smart devices and simply use them without having to download an app or log in. They called it "interaction on demand."