Mobility

Google's Eddystone could be real competition for Apple's iBeacon

Google recently announced Eddystone, an open format for building Bluetooth beacons. Here's how it can be competitive against Apple's iBeacon.

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Image: Google

We know that data is valuable. On an individual level, location data is the type of data that many companies are working hard to take advantage of, because it gives businesses a more detailed look into the everyday lives of consumers.

One of the biggest recent advancements is the use of beacon technology to communicate with smartphone users in a retail store, at an event such as a conference or music festival. Beacons are small, mountable hardware devices that use Bluetooth low energy (BLE) to send messages like advertisements to nearby phones. For example, beacons in a retail store could alert customers to special deals on products they are standing near.

Over the past couple years, Apple has lead the market with its iBeacon protocol first announced at WWDC in 2013. It's no surprise that the system was built to work on Apple devices, but it can also work with some Android devices.

However, even with some Android integration, iBeacon doesn't provide the same level of interaction as it does with iOS devices. And with Android consistently hovering around 80% of the global market share, that compatibility could prove a major issue moving forward for iBeacon partners.

On Tuesday, July 14, 2015, Google announced its beacon technology called Eddystone, an open platform that supports multiple frames and works with Android devices, iOS devices, and any other platform that has support for BLE beacons.

According to the original Google blog post, Eddystone will be used as a part of Google's Physical Web project in that it sends URLs from beacons in addition to traditional beacon messages. Gartner's Mark Hung said that, with this capability especially, Eddystone looks all too familiar to Google's previous beacon effort.

"They definitely added a few minor capabilities, but at least from this initial release, it seems like Eddystone is a rebranding exercise on the part of Google for their Uribeacon technology," Hung said.

Google's approach with Eddystone is largely illustrative of the core difference in approach between Apple and Google. The openness of Eddystone is contrary to the iBeacon, as Apple is known for having a closed, closely guarded ecosystem.

"If you look at iBeacon, they have put out a set of specifications that allow you to be iBeacon compliant. But, to get the label, you have to get certified and vetted by Apple," said Jeffrey Hammond of Forrester Research. "There's not a lot of control over the technology, there's just guidelines on how to implement the technology and the APIs correctly."

The biggest difference in the beacons for users is that iBeacon requires users to download an app to make use of it, but Eddystone only requires a browser to receive beacon messages. Hung said there's some reluctance on the part of users to download yet another app, so they may be more willing to use Eddystone, especially in places they don't frequently visit.

Google's blog post announcing Eddystone said that a certification process for hardware manufacturers is in the works. Even with an impending certification process, the openness of the Eddystone system is still very strong. With a firmware update, existing BLE beacons can be made Eddystone compliant, and Eddystone can exist alongside other platforms on a single piece of hardware.

And, the fact that Google supports different frames means that we could see some sort of iBeacon emulation with Eddystone in the future, Hammond said.

However, Hung would argue that there is no need for an iBeacon emulator and Google probably won't pursue it. It's too easy to support multiple beacon standards, he said.

For developers, Google is launching two new APIs in conjunction with Eddystone:

  1. Nearby API - Allows Android and iOS devices to communicate with other devices and beacons.
  2. Proximity Beacon API - Lets developers connect semantic location data to beacons. Also works with Places API.

As beacons continue to gain traction among businesses, management and security will become the primary concerns of new users. So far, Hammond said, management and security are limited on iBeacon and he has seen vendors create their own management tools to exist on top of the platform so they can have better control over the system.

Using Eddystone's telemetry frame (Eddystone-TLM) in combination with diagnostic tools from the Proximity Beacon API's, administrators will be able to remotely monitor battery life and output. Additionally, Hammond said that Google seems to be leaning more toward the idea of virtual identities for beacons, which could further aid in management efforts.

Google did say that Eddystone will work with other Google products and services, but Hammond said he is interested to see if Eddystone will be integrated into Google's IoT efforts with Brillo and Weave as well.

Despite the differences, it may take awhile for Eddystone to gain popularity. Strong iOS penetration in the US and more time in the market means that manufacturers will primarily support iBeacon if they choose to only support a single beacon technology, Hung said.

Eddystone is available on GitHub under the open-source Apache v2.0 license. A list of Eddystone-compatible beacons can be found here.

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About Conner Forrest

Conner Forrest is News Editor for TechRepublic. He covers enterprise technology and is interested in the convergence of tech and culture.

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