What you need to know about using Bluetooth beacons

Apple's iBeacons technology is merely the start of a new approach to location-aware apps

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In addition to the variety of proprietary sensors and related APIs that some beacons providers are making available for fleet-style deployments for internal use in specific industries, the beacons hardware itself is evolving. The basic units are getting smaller and smaller, with size related mainly to the battery (and thus its life). A three-year beacon is about the size of a hockey puck; a one-year beacon is perhaps half the thickness or more like a golf ball in size.

Beacons' batteries are typically replaceable, but in some cases, swapping out a sealed beacon is cheaper than taking it apart to repace the battery, so expect to see both approaches. A battery with a removable cover is also more subject to tampering, another reason for sealed units.

On the other end of the scale, larger beacons are starting to appear that have Wi-Fi radios or Ethernet ports, so they can communicate data and status to a central management console or database à la big data systems, as well as receive updates. Some will also have dedicated power connections, so they don't need batteries -- but that means electrical wiring has to be installed in many locations.

The beacons management quandary
If you deploy beacons in the iBeacons style, all you have to focus on is making sure the batteries are charged and the beacons are where they're used to be. That's because the beacon sends its UUID and doesn't have anything else to be managed or secured.

Most organizations do beacon inspection the old-fashioned way: Someone checks on each beacon in person, such as a night guard or the person who opens up a store, says Onyx's Foeckl. For beacons that store other information or that can be upgraded via Bluetooth, such a person would use an iPhone or iPad at each location to connect to a beacon. That's not very scalable.

There is currently no way to do a Bluetooth mesh network, where beacons could communicate with each other via Bluetooth and avoid that one-by-one connection, Gan-El notes. That's why some vendors are working on beacons with Wi-Fi and/or wired Ethernet ports built in.

But the connection issue isn't where management ends. You need a management tool, even if it uses an intermediate Bluetooth connection between a mobile device and the beacons. (The mobile device acts as a client to the management server wherever it is.) In addition to checking on status, such management tools could be used to update firmware and pull data from them. (Some beacons support encryption and have antispoofing features, which management tools would at least query.)

There is no common management protocol for beacons, notes StickNFind's Gan-El, and only now are some beacon vendors releasing management tools for their own beacon APIs. Beacon vendors could extend management compatibility to other vendors' management tools, but vendors are currently trying to establish market share, so support for competitors isn't likely in the near term, he says.

Third parties could support multiple protocols, similar to how mobile device management vendors support the various management and security APIs of iOS, Android, and Windows Phone from a common policy engine and admin console. Gan-El expects third-party beacon-management tools soon, either stand-alone or as part of other management tools.

In the meantime, the basic beacons offer a world of opportunity for app developers and businesses alike.

This article, "What you need to know about using Bluetooth beacons," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Smart User blog. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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