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.”
Why Google Eddystone Looms as an Apple iBeacon Killer
Like other beacon projects, The Physical Web uses Bluetooth LE. But instead of sending UUIDs, as iBeacon does, it sends URLs. The advantage of URLs is that they open a Web app in a browser, so they’re more universally applicable.
The Physical Web is not a product, but an open-source project being developed by anyone who wants to participate.
Now There’s Eddystone
This brings us to Google’s July 14 announcement of Eddystone, which is named after a lighthouse on the shore of Devon, England.
The best way to think about Eddystone is that it’s like a combination of iBeacon (which sends UUIDs) and the Physical Web (which sends URLs). Plus, it sends other things as well. It’s also open source, cross platform and extensible. Eddystone is now available on GitHub under the open-source Apache 2.0 license.
Eddystone at its core is an open-source format that defines the language that beacons speak, so that app developers can also understand that language. It’s an open Bluetooth LE format to which anyone can contribute.
Google calls the chunks of data transmitted by Eddystone beacons “frame types.” UUIDs and URLs are supported frame types, for example.
Google also launched some APIs, including one called the Nearby API, which enhances the accuracy and contextualization of the beacon’s particular function. Nearby actually goes beyond beacons too, and can also function over WiFi or by high-frequency sound.
Another API, called the Proximity Beacon API, enables developers to offer contextual information about the location where the beacon is broadcasting.
And finally, Google is offering a way to manage a large number of beacons. Companies that want to better manage their beacons can use Eddystone’s telemetry frame (EddystoneTLM) and the Proximity Beacon API, which together enable the beacons to report on battery status and problems with beacons.
While it’s important to note that Eddystone itself is open source, the Nearby API and the Proximity Beacon are proprietary to Google.
Eddystone offers many improvements over existing beacon technologies. One of these is a frame type Google calls ephemeral identifiers, or EIDs. These can change frequency and are designed to allow only authorized apps or clients to receive and decode them.
Google also announced that its virtual assistant platform, Google Now, will soon be able to make use of Eddystone-supporting beacons. So as you walk into a restaurant, Google Now will give you specific data about where you are and what’s available to you.
Here’s why Eddystone should be an iBeacon killer.
Eddystone supporting apps can not only immediately read the UUIDs transmitted by existing iBeacon devices, but they can also do a lot more than iBeacon alone can do.
Eddystone enables enormous flexibility to expand on what iBeacon accomplishes. It also adds more contextual information, better targeting and security, along with the benefits that come from any open-source system, such as the ability to expand and contribute to the ongoing project.
The difference between iBeacon and Eddystone is not like the difference between iOS and Android. It’s more like the difference between an iPod and an Android phone; one does one small, narrow thing, and the other does everything.
Eddystone is an iBeacon killer—or should be.