Beacons are harder to deploy than you think

Beacons are harder to deploy than you think
Credit: flickr/S. Khan

The contextual technology has great promise for all sorts of businesses, but a rollout can be very complex

One of the most intriguing technologies of 2013 was Apple's iBeacons protocol in iOS 7, for Bluetooth Low Energy-based transponders known as beacons. Two years later, beacons are of very high interest, particularly among retailers and marketers, but not broadly deployed.

Yes, if you have the Apple Store app on your iPhone, you'll get an alert when you are near an Apple Store. That's how I found an Apple Store hidden in New York City's Grand Central Terminal. In addition, some transit agencies are deploying beacons to help travelers find their way. But their use remains very much in pilot mode.

The beacons themselves are simple, as is Apple's iBeacons technology, but deploying and managing these devices is anything but easy, especially at scale. Last year, I predicted that beacons would become commonplace in 2015. That hasn't happened because deploying them is really hard.

A quick tour of how beacons work

Beacons essentially are transponders that provide a unique ID via Bluetooth to a compatible device. In practice, that means an iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch, since those devices have supported Bluetooth Low Energy for several years. This summer, Google announced its own Eddystone protocol for both iOS and Android; in a year or two, most Android devices might also be compatible with beacons out of the box. But today it's hit and miss outside of iOS devices.

Most beacons do little else than transmit their ID to a Bluetooth Low Energy device. An app on the device connects to the Internet to look up that beacon ID and pass that UUID to a back-end service that then tells the app whatever it needs. For example, device X might be in the men's shoes department at a Macy's at 123 Main St., Anytown, USA. The app could then list shoes on sale there, check online inventory for a shoe out of stock at that location, alert you when you're in a department that offers a product you previously placed on your shopping list,  or provide your location to a store mapping app.

Because marketers drool over the thoughts of bombarding potential shoppers about deals in their stores, retail uses of beacons get the lion's share of attention. However, they can be used for all sorts of possibilities, from tracking ski resort guests' use of runs to reminding you that it's trash-pickup day and your trashcan hasn't been put out.

Key to all these uses: An app detects the beacon, looks up its ID, then acts on that identification. Beacons truly are a great idea, but don't think you can take advantage of them without serious time, effort, and money,

Physical challenges of beacons

Beacons are typically the size of a hockey puck and are meant to stick on walls or other surfaces. That has some interesting challenges, such as their color not matching their surroundings or not staying stuck on those surfaces. Alternately, they could be easily stolen or pulled off walls by vandals.

Beacons often have no ID printed on them, so it's easy to get them mixed up when you have a pile of them -- a big deal because it's the unique ID in each beacon that lets the app do its proper job.

If you change your layout, you have to change your beacon locations accordingly.

Beacons are typically battery-operated (who has outlets or direct wiring available everywhere and everywhere?). You have to replace the batteries every few years and hope you don't miss a beacon in that survey -- or put a beacon back in the wrong location.

The Brooklyn Museum has documented some of the physical issues with beacons in a compelling blog post.

There are solutions to some of these issues. Low-tech approaches include writing the serial number on the back with a marker and on a building plan so that you know where they should go if they fall down or are torn down. But note that beacon IDs are typically reprogrammable; what you write down today may not be the beacon's ID in the future.

High-tech solutions include getting Wi-Fi or 802.16 beacons that connect to your LAN so that you can monitor individual beacons' status, such as battery level or whether it's still functioning. But those kinds of beacons get expensive fast, especially if you opt to wire them into place (to avoid the battery issue).

Network challenges of beacons

Related to beacons' physical issues is the fact that they use radio signals, which means their placement can be very tricky. Many IT organizations struggled with the placement of Wi-Fi access points to ensure full coverage but minimize signal interference. Well, Bluetooth's short-range nature (about 30 feet, if no obstructions) takes that challenge to a whole new level.

You need a lot more beacons to get full coverage, such as for an app to help you navigate an office complex or a shopping mall. Whether or not you need saturated placement, you have to be very careful that the beacons are close to where you expect the users to be to get the relevant ID. You probably need several beacons within a small shop, corporate lobby, or department store section -- no single beacon's Bluetooth signal will likely cover all places your users could be. 

Beacon placement is of course easier for some applications, such as for turnstile usage or to provide detail for artwork at a museum, because the physical space is smaller. But that too can present issues: In a museum, the artwork might be close enough to each other than visitors' smartphones detect multiple beacons at once, which will confuse an app that seeks a single ID.

You may have to play with signal strength to reduce overlap, program the apps to look for patterns of beacons to try to triangulate to a specific likely location, or offer an ability to see "nearby" information so that a user can move to the correct item if the app detects a nearby beacon instead of the intended one.

For basic beacons, you have to manually go to each beacon to ensure it's still in place, the battery is working, and the signal is found -- which would need to become part of your "open the store" routine.

Or you need to install pricier Wi-Fi or 802.16 beacons and have a whole network management system in place. It's like managing Wi-Fi access points, but with a lot more individual devices to check and track.

The network-managed beacons can more easily be, well, managed, such as to update their firmware. Otherwise, you need to go around to each one and update them via a smartphone app. Network management also makes it easier to update the beacon for new capabilities, such as to add Eddystone support or change the beacon IDs from Apple's UUID standard to Eddystone's standard, for upgradable beacons. All this networking management will cost you a lot more money.

Then there's security. Beacons typically report only their ID string and a little context like battery level, so you might wonder what security needs exist. Well, their IDs can be spoofed or reprogrammed, so a hacker could screw up your beacons-based operations. Major beacon providers typically offer ways to lock down the ID and authenticate changes based on a user's account information before allowing the change to occur. Then you have to manage who has those account credentials.

This is the kind of management IT does every day, but few IT shops will know how to do so for beacons -- not to mention the marketing folks who will likely ask for beacon deployments.

Application challenges of beacons

Finally, there's the app that uses the beacon ID to deliver whatever information you intend. The app has to be able to look up the beacon ID, so the device running it needs Internet capability. You may also want to download a local set of IDs to the app in case Internet access is disrupted, such as in subway tubes, store basements, and so on.

The more difficult challenge is keeping track of all those beacon IDs and mapping them to whatever content or function you want their detection to trigger. It's not only an inventory issue but a highly localized mapping of ID to contextual app activity. The more locations you use beacons, and the more the things they are associated to change, the harder this information management challenge becomes.

Beacons' challenges often involve more than one type, so the management can get even trickier. For example, a museum will have to reprogram the content for beacons used in traveling exhibits, whose artwork changes periodically. Grocers will have to change what beacons at the end caps (the ends of the aisles where high-margin, impulse buys are often displayed) are associated to because promoting Coke to shoppers when the end cap now features 7-Up will not be effective.

Just as it took organizations time to figure out the intricacies of Wi-Fi rollouts a decade ago, it will take them time to figure out the intricacies of beacon rollouts. Make sure you give yourself the right resources and scope to first pilot, then deploy your beacons -- going in naively could easily sink your effort.

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