The Bluetooth beacon ecosystem has hundreds of startups.  Let’s look at one that had everything going for it but appears to have stalled.  What can we learn?

Ever had the experience where a favorite restaurant of yours closed down?  If so, you may be familiar with feelings of frustration, loss and the question of “why”?  I’ve been experiencing something similar over last few days as I discovered that Kinwa, the team behind a Bluetooth beacon app called Bubble are moving on to other things.  Bubble 1.0 is the end of the line.  There may never be a Bubble 1.1.

Why should we care?  Bubble is a simple but great app, in a sea of mediocrity.  It allows non-technical people to create a beacon enabled experience in a matter of minutes.  More significantly, the writers decision to throw in the towel could be like a canary in the coal mine.  If an app as well crafted as Bubble, can’t break through, what does this mean for other start-ups  navigating a similar course?  It certainly shows how tough it is for beacon start-ups, even ones with good products, to make it across the chasm.  In the case of the beacon ecosystem, the chasm separates pilot projects with early adopters from the production projects that deliver serious money that can sustain a new company.

My infatuation with Bubble started a year ago when I was writing the New Location Essentials Bluetooth beacon training course. I had been looking for a way to demonstrate beacons to students. It was a struggle to find any Bluetooth beacon apps that were halfway decent. Despite all the press releases and the reports of thousands of beacon developer kits being purchased, there were less than a hundred beacon apps on the app store and most of them were “not good”. There are lots of apps that are provided by beacon OEMs that can be used to configure their products and lots of apps from third parties to detect and analyze Bluetooth devices at a technical level, but I was looking for an app that a regular consumer could use, one that could show the possibilities for beacons to trigger content as the user walked around a venue and do it reliably.

Life is too short to spend time doing demos that don’t work. A lot of the apps I tried worked intermittently. Then I found Bubble. Bubble allows you to associate a beacon with content, an image, a name and a URL. The URL can point to a video, or a web page that might have interactive content on it. The setup is done using a second app, the Bubble Tag Manager. The Bubble app itself simply looks for beacons that have been registered with the Tag Manager and displays the associated image and title, providing access to the page that the URL points to. In a matter of minutes you can setup the app to allow users to get information on a piece of artwork, watch a video describing a statue, have airplane departure times displayed or see a menu for a cafe that the user just entered. I would scatter beacons around the class, walk from one to the other and the content associated with the closest beacon would bubble to the top of the screen in a pleasing and playful manner. When you teach a class that lasts for a whole day, there are peaks and troughs of energy in the room. This was a peak. Suddenly the beacon concept was real.  Bubble Tag Manager allows beacon and web content to be linked.

Bubble is really a beacon browser. It associates beacons with web content in a way that is similar to the URI beacon/Physical Web project being led by Google’s Scott Jensen. Unlike URI beacon, it encapsulates a standard URI beacon. It allows businesses that want to enable their visitors to see content triggered by proximity to do so with a minimum of fuss and expense. No need to design a new app, use one that is off the shelf. I’ve advised my consulting clients to use Bubble to test their concepts. Its a quick step before sinking time and money into their own application. Maybe they don’t even need to develop their own application. Most apps fail, so why not spend next to nothing and test quickly before you spend.

So what happened? How could an app fail commercially when it unlocks the potential of so many use cases, with very little effort. Was it the team, their approach, or was it the market? I reached out to Narayan Ghiotti, one of the founders of Kinwa, a group of four University of Florida graduates, all on the creative/engineering side. If things had gone another way, maybe I wouldn’t have been able to talk to him, to break though the PR team to speak to someone at the center of such a cool product. Narayan had the humility of a talented musician who you speak to after a gig. You get the feeling they could be big, but their turn hasn’t come yet and so they are approachable still.

It was clear that Kinwa had done a lot of things right. They had engaged with a variety of businesses to do pilot projects, retailers, a car dealership, a museum, the local airport and their university. Like Google’s URI beacon, the only content they needed to be rendered in the app was mobile web content. Not everyone had that, but clearly that wasn’t an insurmountable problem, maybe it was an opportunity to drive consulting services to fund the team. Their vision was compelling, similar to Scott Jensen, they saw beacons as a bridge to the Internet of Things. Browsing beacons could provide a way to go beyond viewing web pages, to interact with appliances like microwaves and vending machines.

My impression from our call was that the team had been worn down. I’ve seen it myself, when the world of high technology collides with the real world of brick and mortar businesses, there is a screech of breaks. The people managing these venues work at a pace that is different from that of the software world where changes can be released overnight. When you do so many things right, you could be excused for expecting success to come quickly. Your 1.0 product is great, people should recognize that and success should come. Maybe having someone less creative and more sales driven in the team would have made a difference. Perhaps they could have absorbed the push back and delays, and searched for the quick win, it’s hard to say.

The lesson I think we should take away is that we should all prepare for a long slog. Time-to-revenue is going to be longer in this market than in many others. Design your business model, budget and fund raise accordingly. Build a team accordingly. The venues that are the life blood of many beacon business are run by people who are not like us. Their approach is necessary for their survival in a world where operational considerations are paramount, staff don’t show up and inventory needs to be counted. Technology is simply a means to an end.

By way of a post script, if anyone reading this wants to get into the beacon business with an app that bridges the physical world to the Internet of Things, there may be an opportunity for this Bubble to rise again. I’d like to see that. Bubble is still one of the better apps in the Beacosystem. It would be cool to use version 2.0.

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