For the past several decades, much of the computer revolution has aimed to link every machine to every other machine in one big harmonic convergence called the Internet. That trend is coming to an end -- at least in the emerging world of what are being called beacons. Instead of trying to reach everyone in the galaxy, beacon builders want to reach only the right people who are within a few meters of their transmitting devices.
In essence, beacon technology inverts the power of a network, with a more forceful connection to place. In the view of Google, one of the proponents of beacons, it's creating “proximity experiences” or a “strong context signal.”
More buzzwords are sure to come, but at its core, a beacon is a little radio sending out a constantly repeating bag of bits to anyone within earshot, which isn’t very far because the signals are sent out using the Bluetooth Low Energy standard. That should be around 100 meters, but could be much less depending on the signal and any interference that might hamper it.
A shorter range might sound like a limitation, but it’s actually the strength of beacons. A short-range signal can ensure a rich context for information because it’s tied tightly to location. Traditional Wi-Fi hotspots, on the other hand, deliver a TCP/IP link to the entire Internet to anyone who connects. Beacons instead can be used to mix in details about location and position to deliver an experience built of data tied to an exact location.
This extra dimension can be powerful. Instead of giving users a wormhole to the larger Internet to send text messages or check sports scores, beacons can turn their mobile handsets into a combination of tour guide, checkout clerk, coach, meeting organizer, auditor, and more. The beacon builders are only one part of what some call the “physical Web” or the “Internet of things.” They will be useful not only to anyone building out public spaces like malls, museums, or stadiums but also to anyone working in private spaces because the range is short.
Beacons hold special promise for enterprise IT teams, if only because enterprise teams are often focused on the office, the corporate campus, the stores and warehouses, and all the other physical areas around the proverbial shop. Using beacons, IT can provide local, targeted services and data to employees, temporary workers, clients, and guests.
It should come as no surprise that the major handset manufacturers are big players in this emerging market, with Apple and Google offering the iBeacon and Eddystone standards respectively. The companies are approaching beacons in ways you might expect: Apple’s solution is a bit more proprietary and Google’s more open. Both see this as an opportunity to cement the market role for their handsets.
But there is a range of approaches evolving from a number of companies that want to get an early jump on the beacon market. Companies such as Radius Networks, Accent Systems, Kontact.io, and Estimote, among others, are building beacons in various form factors, many of which support both standards and are likely to embrace other standards that come along.
For the open source inclined, Alt Beacon offers an open and interoperable specification complete with examples, tools, and libraries for easier rollout.
The beacon technology is often lumped together with other solutions that build short-range networks. The beacons themselves are usually said to offer one-way broadcasts -- a feature that may lower battery drain but doesn’t lend itself to creating a full, interactive network. Other standards can fill this role. Google, for instance, offers a Nearby Messages API and Nearby Connections API for linking close handsets with a mixture of short-range technologies like Bluetooth and wider-ranging solutions like Wi-Fi. The beacon may not offer a full network with messages flying in two directions, but it can be the catalyst that initiates such a network.
The regular Internet is also bound to play a big role with beacons by connecting a handset or a laptop to a standard server. When a machine encounters a beacon, the information can often include a pointer to a fully interactive service that swaps data over the regular Internet. It might be a URL or some kind of token that identifies the location.
The handset, laptop, or wearable can then close a feedback loop initiated by the bits transmitted from the beacon. The beacon provides the location data, and the back-end system and auxiliary networks enable interactivity with the device receiving the beacon’s signal. Beacons often get the credit even when it’s old-fashioned Wi-Fi or cellular that’s closing the loop and creating a nexus for everything in range of a beacon.
Much of the early interest in beacons has come from outward-facing departments and companies that want to use beacons to engage with the larger world. Restaurants love the idea of sharing their menu with anyone walking by. Stores want to advertise sales. Marketing folks love the idea of broadcasting coupons or brochures to anyone within range.
But there are less obvious -- and potentially more valuable -- applications for beacon use within the organization. These have the power to change the enterprise by simplifying the workflow and offering more power to employees. And IT can have a hand in re-inventing the office by adding a place-based beacon layer to the network that supports both employees and customers.
One of my bosses used to say that all the other employees at the company were our customers. We had to sell ourselves internally to justify our existence; otherwise, the other departments would go outside the company to fulfill their needs.
Internal departments need to advertise and reach out to colleagues like retail companies do with prospects and customers. This can be as simple as the cafeteria broadcasting daily specials or as complex as the latest stats from the shipping department about backlog.
Because this information is of little use to the outside world or in need of restricting from larger distribution, there is little reason to put it on the public Internet or a corporate intranet in hopes that someone finds it. But it is immediately useful to everyone inside a particular building of your corporate campus or a particular area of your office.
Location-based internal marketing is especially useful on corporate campuses and office parks. The more spread out the organization, the more useful it can be to tie information to location. There’s no reason for everyone in a big company to know what’s on the local cafeteria menu. The entire far-flung network doesn’t need to know about local parking, shuttle buses, or any number of local details. Keep them tied to a beacon and the value will be immediate.
One of the constant challenges for any corporate network is telling everyone the lay of the land -- or, to be more precise, the lay of the LAN. What’s the IP address or network name of the local printer? Are there local file servers? What about projectors, digital white boards, holodecks? Employees that frequently use a given area of your company campus know this information, but visitors from the next building don’t. Creating a quick way for everyone to find the mundane configuration details of their current locale can save time for everyone.
Beacons can also trigger the creation of an ad hoc local networks. Leveraging Google’s Nearby Messages API, for instance, IT can enable people to set up ad hoc discussion groups and virtual watercoolers for anyone nearby. The API allows people to publish data and subscribe to streams making it simpler to share binary data. Conference rooms and meeting rooms can have small, localized networks for participants to swap bits, with a beacon ensuring the network remains in the room.
One of the greatest challenges facing any company is ensuring that employees follow rules and regulations. Beacons can both remind people of local rules and help enforce them. Security guards and inspection teams have planned rounds and the beacon network can provide a chain of location signals that follow them through the buildings and campus, ensuring that they visit all of the stops. When each beacon is detected, an app can track the time and report back into a server.
Beacons can also monitor employees in ways that feel creepy but end up increasing the safety of all. Food plants, for instance, often require everyone to wash their hands when they enter the factory floor. A beacon can gently remind anyone who might forget. More complex factories may have more rigorous rules that a beacon’s strict location-based nature can be of benefit in enforcing.
One of the biggest innovations in running a city has been the creation of large databases for tracking crimes and other problems. The leadership in the police department and public works can target particular neighborhoods or even blocks. This same approach can be used internally by the enterprise. Is the IT support team spending too much time in a particular wing? Perhaps the network isn’t performing well enough. Are the docents clustered in one particular wing of the museum? Perhaps they need more encouragement to spread out.
There are any number of reasons why an organization needs to control where employees spend their time. Beacons provide enough location information that can help the team deploy everyone to best locations. If they need to spread out more, a server or app driven by beacon location data can make sure they’re doing this. If they need to be concentrated, the beacons can do the same. There can be a feedback loop that helps ensure everyone is located in the best spot.
Lighting, air conditioning, and heating are some of the biggest expenses for an office, and they’re often either not controlled or controlled in a general way to few people’s true benefit. And anyone who’s walked through a city after dark knows that most skyscrapers waste electricity by leaving the lights on long after everyone has gone home.
A good network of beacons could provide a strong link to a larger control mechanism that could let people have an impact on energy use. Instead of simply choosing a set temperature or assuming the lights should be on, beacons can help pinpoint user location that can then be fed into a centralized set of controls for altering facets of the office environment. If they want more or less heat, they can vote for it. If no one opts to vote for the lights to be switched on in a certain sector, they can stay off. This won’t be a perfect solution, but it will be much more flexible than the current one-size-fits-all approach.
Many companies need ways to encourage employees to do all of the parts of their job. Some want employees to sign in for training sessions. Others want to nudge people to visit the company gym. Turning tasks like these into games is one of the more pleasant ways to herd large organizations and get people to take part.
Beacons can support these contests. Perhaps people get a badge for visiting the gym more than twice a month. Perhaps they get points for taking a long walk each day. Perhaps they get credit for visiting the display of the latest products in the lobby. All of these are relatively gentle ways of pushing people to participate in company goals and missions.
Some stores are beginning to rip out cash registers and issue tablets or smartphones to employees. The staff on the floor can ring up customers, check inventory, or run a dozen other queries against the database regardless of where they roam the aisles.
Beacons can add another layer of assistance, often simply by knowing where the employee happens to be. If someone orders a particular item, it can be delivered fairly precisely using the location information provided by the nearest beacon. If a customer wants a particular item, the beacons can offer good directions to where the item is stocked and the employee can offer accurate help. There are many small but useful ways.
Oops. This isn’t supposed to be public. There’s no doubt that beacon-based systems will collect more information about employees and visitors. Some of this is already available to anyone who can read the log files of the Wi-Fi hotspots and track how MAC addresses try to connect, but beacons will make the connection a bit more obvious.
The industry must begin to search for the appropriate rules to help organizations choose the best way to implement beacons. They might, for instance, destroy log files after five, 10, or 30 days. They could deliberately not keep employee ID numbers after access is checked. They might log access but not keep the details of what activity transpires or is triggered in apps and services tied to the beacon itself.
Some beacons may use different rules than others. Beacons in medical settings, for instance, may follow much stricter rules than the ones that broadcast the cafeteria menu. The developers should aim to make the configuration as flexible as possible so that companies can honor the necessary privacy of their employees and customers.