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URL Beacons - What's in the Box

UriBeacon could well be bigger than iBeacon in its disruptive role, providing a bridge between the physical and digital worlds. Let’s explore why that is, how UriBeacons work and what to expect when you start browsing the Physical Web.

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The Myth of the Long Tail

The target market for UriBeacon is all organizations that don’t have the resources, skills, market position and luck to develop a very successful app. That would be most organizations.

The success of iBeacon is predicated on the success of mobile apps. iBeacons require beacon aware apps to receive their UUID, Major and Minor Device Numbers. With all those apps in the app stores that seems like a fairly safe bet.

However, the painful truth is that the vast majority of apps are financial failures. Gartner calculated that less than 0.01 percent of consumer mobile apps will be considered a financial success by their developers.  Developing a successful major app is like making a major movie; very difficult and very expensive. Most of us only use a handful of apps regularly and with well over a million apps each on the Android and Apple stores, competition is fierce. That’s not to say that you can’t make money with apps. You can, big money, but truth be told, the chances are that it won’t be you or I that hits the jackpot.

Is it un-American to talk like this? I moved to the United States because of the positive entrepreneurial culture, the “can do” attitude. Anyone can be president, be a movie star, or sing to a billion people during the Super Bowl halftime show. That said most of us don’t get to put our feet up in the Oval office or win an Oscar, let alone fly from a wire around the University of Phoenix Stadium with Fireworks exploding around us. The most fortunate one percent isn’t just a political issue, it’s the way it is in the world of mobile apps. Fortunately, as Americans we don’t let logic get in the way of ambition, so there is very little chance that people will give up innovating and publishing apps, or hitch hiking to Hollywood to start their movie career. We will continue to have the best looking waiters and waitresses in LA for some time to come.

I speak of this from personal experience. My screen play has been gathering dust in a draw for the last 15 years and my attempts to write a mobile app have been frustrated ever since I paid $27 for an iPhone Application Development for Dummies handbook many years ago.

The exciting thing about UriBeacon is that you don’t need to be able to write an app to use one. It took me about 10 minutes. First I opened up my brand new Blesh UriBeacon, (sent all the way from Istanbul), pushed a button to get it into setup mode, copied and pasted the URL that I wanted it to broadcast and away I went, with a beacon enabled mobile experience. Ten minutes, first time user, cost $50 plus tax and $8 shipping from Turkey.

The UriBeacon experience is different

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Rather than triggering behavior in custom apps that may be running in the background, UriBeacon broadcasts short web URIs that can be browsed by a general purpose browser, working in the foreground. URI relies on more of a pull from the user, scanning their environment rather than a push from the beacon.

The idea is that this interaction will ultimately be enabled by ubiquitous apps like the browser. Until that happens, you can download the Physical Web browser app from the app store.

To be absolutely clear about this, UriBeacon is not about replacing iBeacon, it’s a complementary tool set. Preinstalled apps like ApplePay/PassBook will leverage beacons more and more as we close the loop between promotions and purchases. For many very successful apps like Facebook, OpenTable and Shazam and for games that don’t translate to the browse environment, using iBeacon makes sense. It totally makes sense for Walmart and Target to invest in their own apps, but we know that it doesn’t for the other 99% of retailers.

For enterprises that can afford a web site but can’t afford a mobile app, UriBeacon brings the benefit of digital to physical convergence. We should expect tools like WordPress and Adobe Creative Suite to extend the web publishing system to cater for UriBeacon. These offerings are in a position to tie Physical Web into the digital web publishing tools with which millions of content producers are already familiar.

UriBeacon is an open source project. Visit the Github site where you can see who is working on it and see the specification of the Bluetooth packet structure. They have published Android and iOS Physical Web browsers that can also configure the beacons. The UriBeacon open source project is not an official Google project, but it is championed by Scott Jenson, a Google employee. Scott evangelized the concept before the advent of iBeacon and before his most recent employment by Google in 2013.

Deploying a UriBeacon

Bless Beacons Unboxed

The exciting thing is that there is so little to do in order to take the first steps. Copy and paste the URL from your existing mobile site into the UriBeacon setup tool and you are good to go. If a new technology can augment an existing ecosystem and make it better, its chances of success are clearly a lot better than one that requires extensive retooling.

Let’s get to some specifics of how this works at the moment.

Step One: Buy a UriBeacon

Unlike iBeacon, there aren’t a lot of options in terms of UriBeacon hardware today (that’s likely to change soon). You can get a dev kit from Adafruit, but Blesh appear to be first to market with a packaged Physical Web product. I received mine twelve days after placing my order.

Inside a Blesh Beacon

In the package, you get a cardboard pot of three beacons with minimal instructions, but the process is simple enough. When you pull the tab, the battery is enabled. When you startup the Physical Web Browser you see the beacon as evidenced by something that looks like a Google search listing, with the page title, URL and the abstract (which a web page has encoded for search engine optimization). It appears that this meta data is pulled from the Google search catalog. When I updated the description for my new Location Essentials site, the change wasn’t immediately reflected in the listing that the app displayed.

To change the URL that the beacon transmits, you unscrew the three tiny screws that secure the case with a very fine Philips screw driver. This exposes the circuitboard with a button which you press. You then press the configuration “cog” in the bottom right of the app and that allows you to enter a URL.

In order to replicate what a venue such as an airport might want to do, I copied and pasted a URL to a YouTube video that explains the background to a piece of artwork on display at the San Diego Airport (a huge LED matrix lighting system suspended from the ceiling throughout Terminal 2 by Jim Campbell … it’s cool. Check it out if you are visiting SAN). To continue the airport guide use case, I include the URL to flight information for the airport that might be broadcast near to the display flight boards. Then for the purposes of serving my own selfish interests and to illustrate what an airport concession might want to do to promote its products, I include a URL to the companion web site for the book that this article will become part of … maybe it will be on sale at the airport book store one day.

The procedure was simple, getting the pieces of the case to line up so the screws found their place was a little tricky, but not a show stopper.

The GitHub Physical Web app displays the metadata from three Blesh UriBeacons

When I first tried to use the Blesh Physical Web app to configure the beacon, I had a few problems with the URL being corrupted, but Blesh fixed this within 24 hours. Those fixes should percolate through to the released version of their app available on the App Store by the time any beacons ordered are delivered. The GitHub open source app downloadable on the App Store worked fine although it had no configuration options, just the ability to change the beacon’s URL. The Blesh version has additional parameters that allow you to adjust the standard advertising interval, the signal strength broadcast at various configuration levels (High, Medium, Low, Lowest) and the ability to password protect any changes to the configuration.

From Turkey with Love

The Blesh invoice from Constantinople

I feel like my desk has got a bit more cosmopolitan with a beacon that was made in Spain, and shipped from Turkey, with paperwork that looks like it might have come from a clerk in the Byzantine Empire (crumpled with multiple official looking stamps and signatures). Blesh are an interesting company. Newcomers to the US, they are well established in Turkey with some great experience implementing a very cool, cloud based, Beacon enabled, payment system, in partnership with one of the major banks over there. This project would have been featured on the front page of the Wall Street Journal if it had been deployed in the US.

Links to Media and Devices

From our initial experiment you can see how these search results could provide a jumping off point to a wealth of information, media and rich interactive content in the same way the Google results page does today.

These links can open up more than media, they can invoke interactive web based services with devices such as thermostats, vending machines, gas pumps, microwaves, door locks, jacuzzis …

The Blesh App UriBeacon configuration screen

Critical Success Factors

It’s very early days for the Physical Web. There are a number of critical success factors, things that must happen for this concept to work. The key one will be ease of use, which will come as and when the OS providers build UriBeacon awareness into the operating system via the pre-installed browser.

For Google this makes total sense. Not only will their ads be on the landing pages which will get viewed more often, there are opportunities to increase the click-through rate and Cost Per Click that they charge because these ads are now potentially more relevant.

The generic Physical Web app simply allows the beacon URL to be changed Constantinople

You can also imagine that UriBeacon could be used to extend the Adsense model where site developers get a revenue share from Google for making space on their pages for ads to be displayed. Why not apply the same revenue sharing model to UriBeacons not just on the landing pages the static URLs point to, but you could make the URLs dynamic so that Frito-Lay can pay to access all UriBeacons in vending machines. The URL that the beacon sends could be a token that is dynamically resolved and associated with an ad that Google sold to the highest bidder. Hershey’s Pepsico and Frito-Lay could bid for their ad to show up as you approach the vending machine.

Strategically UriBeacon opens up the possibility for Google to apply their own content framework in this intersection of the digital and physical worlds. At the moment Google have supported Bluetooth Smart on Android, but there is a gap in the layers above the connectivity layer, where privacy and app scheduling are not managed by Google in the way that Apple do with iOS and iBeacon.

An “Opportunity” for Beacon Vendors?

What should all the Beacon vendors do who jumped on the Apple iBeacon bandwagon? Should they support UriBeacon? They already have too much to do keeping up with the changes pushed on them by the OS vendors as new point releases of their operating systems come out, plus they have to build out their management, analytics and partner programs. UriBeacon could be a major distraction, a resource sync, fragmenting the Beacosystem.

No, UriBeacon is more than likely going to be a massive “boon” for the major beacon manufacturers. If successful apps that drive usage are the tip of the iceberg, UriBeacon represents the rest of the massive body that is submerged below water today, but could rise to the surface, like a mountain, almost overnight. I know, another fluffy metaphor, how predictable and unspecific. Put it this way, if you are a beacon vendor your TAM (Total Addressable Market) just grew by an order of magnitude. If your TAM just got multiplied by 10, that means your valuation just got a lot bigger too. Exciting? Well, not if adding support requires more resources than you have. Then UriBeacon just becomes another major risk in your business plan. Fortunately the major beacon vendors have already got used to accommodating multiple beacon standards within a single unit. Many of them are already sending out iBeacon packets, with their own proprietary packets piggy backed on the tail of iBeacon data. They do this in order to implement secure access and additional management data. So if you are a beacon vendor already broadcasting two kinds of packets, why not add a third?

One reason not to is that when you broadcast more data you use up more power, so if you increase the packet broadcast by 50%, your battery life just got correspondingly shorter. Fortunately UriBeacon only broadcasts once a second. Remember the use case is a pull model where the browser is in the foreground, so the issues of trying to catch the attention of the OS by broadcasting at the iBeacon prescribed rate of ten times a second don’t apply. Therefore our tax on the battery in order to support UriBeacon is of the order of 10% more; probably worth it given the value to the beacon vendor.

What about Apple?

If this such a good idea for Google, it would seem that Apple’s instinctive reaction would be to try to undermine the adoption of UriBeacon. So far they have not done that. The Physical Web apps have been allowed onto the iOS App Store. When you speak to the UriBeacon team they are very careful not to position this as a UriBeacon vs iBeacon horse race. Positioning the project as open source is smart, but it’s still a Google sponsored open source project, led by a Google employee.

Hopefully economics, the good of the users and common sense will prevail. Enabling the same cool experiences on iPhone as will be available on Android makes sense for Apple. Google are not the only company with an ad business. iAd is focused on in-app advertising, but when you have a market as big as the Physical Web, it would make sense for Apple to see that “a rising tide lifts all boats”.

Filtering, Ordering, Prioritizing, Personalizing, Anticipating

Today, the Blesh beacon browser app orders the UriBeacon listings based on the strength of the signals being received from the beacons. So the closer the beacon, the stronger the signal, the higher in the ranking the beacon is likely to be. I conducted a shell game, reordering experiment, with the three UriBeacons lined up, 2 feet apart with a phone running the Blesh app next to the third beacon. It took about three seconds for the Blesh beacon browser to reorder the beacon information on the screen to correspond with the change in relative position of the beacons as I moved them around. There’s scam that could be designed around that if you were unscrupulously minded.

What is it that makes Amazon and Google so great to use, beyond the fact they have vast coverage of things you are interested in? The “paradox of choice” means that while we all want more, we can easily be overwhelmed. How often have we looked at the hundreds of TV channels on cable and thought that there is nothing on. Amazon and Google are great at surfacing relevant content in a sea of choices.

If UriBeacon reaches its potential, the sea of location specific content could become a tsunami. If this is really about context, the winner of the next round of browser wars could be the UriBeacon browser that blends the perfect recipe of preferences, past behavior/click-throughs, segmentation, AI and recommendation engines to present the UriBeacons that are most relevant in the most compelling way.

URI what?

We are a masochistic lot in the technology business. Overtime we all get comfortable with a buzz word or acronym, and then someone decides that they need to replace it with something that most of us don’t understand. If your Mum is starting to use a technology name, then it’s definitely time to change it so she doesn’t get too comfortable. So why URI? Why not call these things URL Beacons? That’s what they broadcast, all be it compressed in order to fit in the Bluetooth Advertising packet payload.

URI stands for Uniform Resource Identifier. URLs (Uniform Resource Locators) are a form of URI. Another kind of URI is the URN (Uniform Resource Name). The ISBN which identifies a book (but not the location of a particular book) is a URN. Apparently URI was chosen because it gives the standard room to grow, presumably with the ability to send some of these varied identifiers to objects other than web pages. Maybe I’m getting old, but I would have stuck with URL and made everyone feel a bit more comfortable and familiar with what these things are.

Privacy and Security

No discussion of beacons would be complete without asking the privacy question.

UriBeacons are arguably even less of a threat to our privacy than iBeacons. Like iBeacons they are just broadcasting to you, not monitoring you. iBeacons require an app to act on the trigger that an iBeacon can invoke. The danger of lots of different apps, is that there is more chance for a rogue app to do something that they shouldn’t do, by abusing the knowledge of where you are and who you are. If a single centralized browser is the reader of all these URIs being broadcast at us, there is more of an opportunity to verify that the browser can be trusted, with a single set of permissions and policies on what we want to share with the web pages to which the URI is pointing.

If we look at security from the point of view of the Beacon owner, then they have a number of options to control who gets to access the information and resources the URI is pointing to. The owner can constantly change the URL using a sequence that only trusted users can understand. They can require login to the pages being pointed to. The network that is hosting the resource could be locked down to specific devices or IP addresses. There are a lot of options.

The Bottom Line

The key takeaways for me are that UriBeacon is the most exciting thing that has happened to the beacon business so far. The barriers to entry are low for beacon makers, for software developers and for individuals. UriBeacon opens up the world of proximity to anyone who can produce a web page, which is most organizations. The technology makes all those informational proximity use cases a lot cheaper to implement and has the scope and architecture to enable a single app to interface with all of the gadgets that are being wired into the Internet of Things. Let’s hope Apple agrees.