Beacon has been a buzzword these years bombarding the IoT ecosystem. These beacons are tiny devices operated on top of Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) technology, a technology to empower the IoT development as according to Bluetooth SIG. One should not confuse BLE with beacon: BLE is a technology, and the beacon is just a device realized by this technology. Or I should put it in this way: beacon is a subset of BLE. Now we are clear about BLE and beacon, but what exactly a beacon is? I believe you have also heard of iBeacon and Eddystone, but, what are they and how do they help to advance the IoT ecosystem? In this post, we will first review the beacon, and then, we will have a quick comparison between iBeacon and Eddystone. Hopefully, you can grasp the big picture regarding this tiny beacon and further unleash its potential for the IoT development. Ultimately, we hope that this post can help you to look beyond the current trend of the beacon, and start to think of the possible challenges that our market might face with such explosive beacons adoption in both public and private spaces.
So, let’s talk about the beacons. Yeah, you can find a lot of beacon manufacturers these days and each of them promises to give you the best experience with certain specific features which are only available in their beacon. You can always check out their website to learn more about their beacon. But be aware and don’t get deceit by the astonish outlook design, in fact, the beacon is just a tiny device that advertises the BLE signals according to a pre-defined interval. The format of the bit stream encapsulated into the advertised signals is subject to the employed communication protocol. Yes, this is where the iBeacon and Eddystone came in. Simply said, iBeacon and Eddystone are just two different standards that define the format of the encapsulated bitstream. By inspecting the communication protocol (i.e., either iBeacon or Eddystone), the receiver can then decode the signal accordingly.
Well, now you should have some basic ideas regarding iBeacon. Again, please don’t confuse iBeacon with the beacon. Beacon is just a generic term used to describe the BLE device which operates in a broadcasting mode, a device being without a specified communication protocol. iBeacon, on the other hand, refers to a specific beacon device that is implemented with the communication protocol specified by Apple. The history of iBeacon can be traced back to December 2013, where Apple announced their iBeacon protocol during the Worldwide Developers Conference. Just as any Apple devices, the iBeacon is designed to work only with iOS devices; however, Android or any other devices can also interact with iBeacon as long as they are BLE-compatible. However, since it is a proprietary device by Apple, it works best in iOS devices comparatively. iBeacon only works with native apps, meaning that we need to install an app to interact with the iBeacon devices. Through the installed app, the device can acquire the UUID, major and minor encapsulated in the advertised signals for further interaction. Note that the major and minor are just a series a number ranging from 0-65535, they do not contain any multimedia content or interaction commands. The receiver always needs to refer the major and minor to a content management server to retrieve the corresponding content or further instruction. While some might consider this as one possible drawback of iBeacon, the major-minor, in fact, gave much greater flexibility in content management and delivery. Furthermore, there are many possibilities with major minor besides content mapping, and it allows us a greater flexibility to manipulate the content and adding in better intelligent elements. I am not sure if you got the idea that I would like to share here, please leave your comments if you are inspired. Share with us and the community if you come up a better way in using the iBeacon besides the push notification and content delivery which has been widely employed by retail industries.
Eddystone, similar to iBeacon, is just a baby belong to the same subset (i.e., beacon) of BLE. In other words, iBeacon is a big brother to Eddystone and Eddystone is two years younger than iBeacon. Following Apple’s footsteps, Google launched Eddystone in July 2015. While iBeacon only encapsulate UUID, major and minor into their advertising signals, Eddystone promises a wider spectrum in which the advertising signals can carry much richer data besides the UUID, major and minor (it is known as UID packet in Eddystone). The other 2 extra packets available through Eddystone is the URL and TLM packet. You can find a clean and clear description of this three Eddystone-specific packets in here. They also list down the differences between iBeacon and Eddystone in a straightforward manner. In fact, the concept of Eddystone-URL is similar to the QR code, it encapsulates a website address which you can open with your web browser. The major difference is how the users discover the website address. With QR code, users need to take the initiative to scan the QR code to access the web; whereas with Eddystone-URL, users will be notified by the app as they pass-by the installed Eddstyone. Web accessing is easier and hassle-free with the active advertisement by the Eddystone, compared to the passive mode of the QR code in which active involvement from the user is needed to retrieve the web address. In contrast to the proprietary iBeacon, Eddystone is an open protocol where developers can enjoy greater flexibility developing with Eddystone associated IoT. So, does Google give you any inspiration with their open Eddystone protocol?
iBeacon vs Eddystone
People are excited about the possibilities of beacons in enhancing the IoT ecosystem, especially with the active involvement from the two giants – Apple and Google. While the market is witnessing an explosive beacon adoption, our current market still lacking a mature platform to fully integrate the beacon and thus unleash its full potential. Such an explosive adoption by the marketers without a holistic consideration might probably lead to a serious problem affecting the healthy development cycle of the IoT ecosystem. So, instead of choosing iBeacon or Eddystone, or trying to come up a better protocol, have you ever think of the possible challenges that we might face in the near future with massive beacons in our proximity? How these beacons, be it iBeacon, Eddystone or your own defined beacon standard, are going to affect how we interact with the people and the IoT devices in our proximity? We do not have an answer for it now, but you can probably imagine the possible future where everyone (including you) is surrounded by a number of the known or unknown beacon. I am not sure how these are going to change the way we interact, but definitely, our proximity will no longer limit to merely people or device interaction but a cross-domain interaction between people, device and even the cyberspace.