Google joins Apple, Facebook, Twitter in beacon race

The white-hot market that is beacon technology got another boost this week when Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) unveiled Eddystone, a new and open format for Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacons for anyone to use.

In a blog post, Google explained that Eddystone "supports multiple frame types for different use cases," and simplifies the introduction of new functionality to existing beacons. The format is compatible with Google's Android operating system along with Apple's (NASDAQ: AAPL) iOS and any other "platform that supports BLE beacons."

The Google engineers said that by design, a beacon is meant to be discoverable by any nearby Bluetooth Smart device, via its identifier, which is a public signal. At the same time, privacy and security "are really important," so they built in a feature called Ephemeral Identifiers (EIDs) which change frequently and allow only authorized clients to decode them. "EIDs will enable you to securely do things like find your luggage once you get off the plane or find your lost keys," the blog said. "We'll publish the technical specs of this design soon."

Google's entry into the beacon space did not come as a surprise to industry veterans. "It's yet another stamp of approval from the industry that this technology is not going away," and the fact that now Apple, Google, Facebook and Twitter all have dedicated resources to Bluetooth Low Energy "shows the industry is heating up," said Rebecca Schuette, director of marketing at Swirl Networks, in an interview with FierceWirelessTech.

"We will automatically incorporate that [Google] protocol in our beacons, and we'll be able to do that through remote firmware upgrades to beacons that are already deployed," she said, adding that all of Swirl's beacons moving forward will have that protocol incorporated as well. It's all about being able to reach more people and serving customers, she said.

Swirl, which specializes in beacon hardware and software targeting large retailers, has publicly announced partnerships with the likes of Lord & Taylor, Hudson Bay, Urban Outfitters, Timberland, Alex and Ani and Kenneth Cole, but it also has a number of other clients that are in private beta right now. "We have a significant footprint in the retail industry," after launching its beacon technology in 2014, Schuette said.

"I think what's important for retailers right now is that when they make a choice, whether it's in beacon hardware or beacon software, that they're not subject to vendor lock-in where that technology is going to be obsolete, so being able to have things like remote fleet management and automatic firmware upgrades on your existing beacons becomes more and more important, and I think that's what Google brings to this game," she said. "It's another protocol that ultimately should be supported and will be supported. Swirl beacons are absolutely going to support the Eddystone protocol" and remote fleet management will be supported in the coming months.

Swirl isn't saying anything specifically, but Twitter's investment arm is a strategic investor in Swirl and considering it has a massive mobile app audience, a Twitter deal with Swirl to incorporate beacons would be a logical outcome.

As with the broader Internet of Things (IoT), a lot of different protocols are vying for a piece of the beacon action. Earlier this week, the Wi-Fi Alliance introduced a new certification program called Wi-Fi Certified Wi-Fi Aware, with proximity-based social networking part of the target market.

"We made an early bet on Bluetooth Low Energy as the vehicle to drive that engagement, and it's paid off tremendously for us," Schuette said. "This idea of being able to talk to shoppers when they are directly in aisle and engage and influence them while they're at the point of purchase is incredibly valuable, which I think is why you're seeing the majority of the top 100 retailers experimenting and actually doing full rollouts of beacons in their stores."

For more:
- see FierceWirelessEurope's take
- see this Google blog
- see this ABI Research blog
- see this VentureBeat article

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