What Google’s iBeacon competitor means to marketers

Beacons now reach Android users, and could go further

2015-07-13_16-46-26-640x201It seems like every consumer brand, from Macy’s to Hudson’s Bay to Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, is trying to figure out mobile beacons. But what’s not often mentioned is these stories is that mobile beacons really only work on Apple devices — meaning they don’t even have the potential to reach more than half of Canadian smartphone users.

That changed last week when Google launched its own beacon format, Eddystone, the first that designed to interact with Android devices and a direct competitor to Apple’s dominant iBeacon technology.

Steve Cheney is co-founder and senior vice-president, business and operations for Estimote, one of several beacon manufacturers that have already implemented Eddystone (and according to some estimates is the leading beacon manufacturer in North America by share of devices). Cheney told Marketing that Eddystone has already made a big difference for beacon-based marketing by signaling that Google — the world’s largest ad technology vendor — sees beacons as a viable, long-term technology, and are now less likely to go the way of faddish marketing technologies like QR codes.

The biggest difference between Google and Apple’s products is that the former is open source and “device agnostic,” meaning it can be implemented on both Android and iOS devices. IBeacon is now two years old, but Apple designed it to only work with iPhones and iPads, and doesn’t officially authorize cross-device compatibility. That hasn’t stopped some developers from using ad hoc solutions to make Android apps that can receive iBeacon notifications, but it’s unlikely that a large brand would get away with such fiddling.

Eddystone can be read by any Android device with the latest version of Google Play Services (regardless of manufacturer) and by any iOS app with the proper library installed.

Retail brand implications

Cheney says that having an official Android beacon platform is a big deal for some brands, like Walmart.

“They have tons of people on Android,” he says. “It’s a different demographic. And as the world’s largest retailer, Android is probably super important for them.”

There are also hints that Google has much bigger plans for Eddystone. Cheney points to a feature that Google hasn’t said much about, but has the potential to dramatically shift the way marketers and consumers use this technology.

Typically, beacons broadcast simple ID codes that certain mobile apps will listen for. Eddystone allows beacons to broadcast more complex URLs with instructions that can be used by a browser or other apps. If that’s implemented, it would mean the user wouldn’t need to download a retailer’s app to access their beacon notifications in-store. Instead, they could use a universal app like Google Now.

“Imagine if you opened [Google Now] while you were in a restaurant and the menu appears because it’s in range of a beacon,” Cheney says. Alternatively, a beacon attached to an outdoor ad for an upcoming film could pull up a Google Now card showing the trailer. “The URL thing is Google’s approach to thinking that the physical world might map to the web,” he explains.

He was quick to add that Google, as well as the developers using Eddystone, will have to be very careful about how and when they send such messages, since they could easily give rise to security or spam issues.

A more creative platform?

Cheney says that a lot of marketers have been pretty unimaginative with their beacon use, and are basically using beacons to distribute the same offers they would have published in flyers.

“If that’s all this technology is capable of — pushing a coupon — then we’ve all failed,” he says. “There are all these amazing things that location and context can do that are ambient, that can work in the background, without [the user] understanding the technology is there or even exists. That’s the promise of Bluetooth sensors and beacons.”

Now that iBeacon has a real competitor, retailers and brands using beacons are faced with a new dilemma: which solution to adopt? At the moment, a single beacon can’t run both Eddystone and iBeacon simultaneously. That effectively means that retailers will have to focus on either iOS or Android customers (assuming they don’t want to install twice as many beacons in their stores).

That may not be a problem for long. Estimote (and likely other beacon manufacturers) are working on a solution that will allow a single beacon to broadcast two different signals intermittently. That could mean that a single beacon could broadcast to both Android and iOS devices at the same time or service multiple brands running separate campaigns.

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