Wireless Proximity Services

Illustration of hands holding hi tech devices

If proximity services are to be the next big hope for generating data, and money, from smartphone users, cellular networks will once again have to justify their role in that value chain. Small cells and 3G/4G’s location capabilities make a strong case, based around high levels of security, privacy enforcement and ubiquity. But the unlicensed spectrum options mean a far wider variety of service providers can play, and Bluetooth beacons’ simplicity have made them a popular choice for supporting services from targeted in-store promotions to mobile payments to smart home services.

Apple’s iBeacon, the dominant format so far, is just the beginning of the story however, not the end. This week sees Google mounting its challenge to iBeacon, promising to open up the space still further, while the WiFi Alliance is starting to certify devices for compliance with WiFi Aware, which provides beacon-like capabilities over 802.11. That could work with Bluetooth Low Energy, with BLE providing the last hop as it often does on cellular systems, or in some scenarios, it could replace BLE entirely with WiFi.

Google’s beacon platform, Eddystone, like most of its efforts in the mobile web world, manages to be open source but also heavily controlled by the search giant.  It is multi-platform, unlike iBeacon, which can only send its alerts to iDevices. While Apple uses services like iBeacon and Apple Pay to encourage increased uptake of its smartphones, making its walled garden as attractive as possible, Google needs to ensure users of all devices – not just Android – can access the services which deliver its advertising and data revenues. So Eddystone will support Android, iOS and another other platform with support for Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE).

Support for Eddystone is built into the ‘Nearby’ application programming interface (API), available to developers from Google Play Services (which is Android-based), or from GitHub under the Apache 2.0 licence.

Google has also improved on iBeacon by removing the necessity for users to have an application installed. It is not the first to do that – last November, Samsung asserted its independence from Google’s Android worldview by releasing its Proximity technology and Placedge software developers’ kit (SDK). These form a mobile marketing platform based on BLE beacons, but with no need for the user to have an app – for instance, from the store they are visiting – on their device.

Google will no doubt be looking well beyond classic in-store applications and seeking to leverage Eddystone as part of a broader IoT (internet of things) platform. This explains why it is taking a different approach to most existing players by not trying to create a vertical stack, but inviting a wide range of third parties into its ecosystem, unifying that with Eddystone, which basically just simplifies the set-up of the beacons, and the way they communicate with devices and back end software.

Eddystone’s success will depend on creating a wide developer base, and also on signing beacon hardware partners targeting interesting markets. The initial list of Eddystone backers includes Bluvision, Estimote and Kontakt.io, while Samsung’s initial hardware partners were GigaLane, Radius Networks, Roximity and Swirl.

This is an experimental project and Google is opening up the code in the hope of creating a developer ecosystem and, in time, a de facto standard. A primary aim is to interact with connected objects without the need to install applications for each purpose. The mobile world is already shifting from downloaded, specific apps to more generalized web services, and the large numbers of gadgets which will potentially be involved in the IoT will make the apps route impractical in many areas.

Google expects the capability to be built, in future, into the operating systems of the handsets and tablets which will control the various gadgets around the smart home or office. Google’s UX designer and Chrome team member, Scott Jenson described the concept as the extension of the power of the URL to all kinds of connected objects.

WiFi Aware’s place in the Physical Web:

WiFi Aware may well become part of Physical Web, as it evolves, too. The latest WiFi Alliance specifications enable device users to locate others nearby in order to join them in game-playing, business discussions or content sharing. That connectivity could take place over conventional WiFi or over the peer-to-peer system, WiFi Direct. Supporting devices discover one another and then synchronize, creating what the Alliance calls a “common heartbeat”. This is highly energy efficient and works well in crowded environments, the body said. The devices form clusters and exchange small messages to allow for automatic discovery of nearby services, and a WiFi connection can then be made to an interesting application.

Similar ad hoc, P2P communications services are already available, using Bluetooth or WiFi (in the latter, Apple’s Bonjour is a well-used mechanism for automatic service discovery). But Aware will standardize the way they work, to simplify and encourage uptake and to introduce elements like security. The technology should be added to chips this year and available in smartphones and tablets next year.

WiFi Aware uses ‘neighbor awareness’ software which works continuously in the background, saving power by sending clusters of very small ping messages rather than broadcasting all the time. This is a similar approach to that of Bluetooth beacons (over which Aware can run, the Alliance’s head of marketing, Kelly Davis-Felner, told NetworkWorld). The software also helps users ascertain what kind of games or services are available before making a connection. However, in its current form, it has to be built into an app in order to be used.

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Caroline has been analyzing and reporting in the hi-tech industries since 1986 and has a huge wealth of experience of technology trends and how they impact on business models. She started her career as a journalist, specializing in enterprise and carrier networks and in silicon technologies. She spent much of her journalistic career at VNU Business Publishing, then Europe’s largest producer of technology publications and information services . She was publishing director for the launch of VNU’s pan-European online content services, and then European editorial director. She then made the move from publishing into technology market analysis and consulting, and in 2002 co-founded Rethink Technology Research with Peter White. Rethink specializes in trends and business models for wireless, converged and quad play operators round the world and the technologies that support them. Caroline’s role is to head up the wireless side of the business, leading the creation of research, newsletters and consulting services focused on mobile platforms and operator models. In this role, she has become a highly recognized authority on 4G systems such as LTE and WiMAX, and a prolific speaker at industry events. Consulting and research clients come from major mobile operators, the wireless supply chain and financial institutions.