Here’s the one thing that makes Eddystone so much more effective than ibeacon

Before I start off with this article, let me first note that I’m assuming that you are familiar with what beacons and Low Energy Bluetooth is. If not, though a full explanation is beyond the scope of this article, here’s a quick intro: Beacons are small, battery powered devices, that can be placed in any location and broadcast a low energy signal in a range of up to 100 meters around them. Any individual walking within range of that signal can have some kind of action triggered on their phone – a notification popping up, or an activity taking place in a phone app. Beacons are ideal for very fine tuned, location based communication, using very low cost hardware.

There are two types of beacons that have emerged as the competing market standards. iBeacons, which work based on the ibeacon protocol defined by Apple and Eddystone beacons which work using the Eddystone protocol defined by Google.

The main difference between the two types of beacons is this: ibeacons require a mobile phone app in order to work – if you deploy ibeacons in a location that you manage, they will not do anything unless people walking nearby have installed on their phone some app that you have released that ‘listens’ for the beacons. Eddystone beacons ‘can’ work in the same way, but they can also broadcast our something called an Eddystone URL – a link to content on the internet, which can be seen by a compatible Web Browser like Google Chrome or Opera and which then triggers a notification on the user’s phone that allows them to navigate to that content.

In other words, with ibeacon, it is specific apps that ‘listen’ for the beacon, whereas with Eddystone, the listening can be done by your phone web browser. The reasoning behind Eddystone is that by allowing monitoring for beacons to be handled by a common app like the web browser, a beacon can target a much larger audience compared compared to broadcasting out to only a specific bespoke app.

Having said this, there are still a number of hurdles that have to be passed in order for an individual to pick up an Eddystone broadcast. An individual needs to have Bluetooth and Location Services enabled. They also need to have a compatible Web Browser that can listen for Eddystone beacons (Google’s Chrome for Android and iphone is the clearest example, but other browsers like Opera and Firefox for mobile also support the protocol) and they need to enable the so called ‘Physical Web’ option in that browser (sometimes enabled by default).

These all seem like a very large number of steps, so we wanted to evaluate if Eddystone can realistically communicate with individuals in a real world setting, or if all the prerequisite steps are just too much of a barrier. In March 2017, we installed 10 Eddystone beacons embedded on 10 Digital Information signs in an outdoor Sculpture Park in the Promenade of the city of Limassol, a busy Mediterranean tourism hub. The Eddystone beacons were part of a wider system that also utilised printed QR codes and NFC touch points, all pointing to more information about the sculptures on display in the park. The information was all stored online. No separate mobile phone app was developed and the content was available to individuals via their Web Browsers. By tracking use, we hoped to evaluate if there would be an actual response to the Eddystone beacons and how it would compare to the other more traditional technologies.

The results since then have been telling. In one month we have had 251 hits from the QR codes and NFC touch points. In contrast, we’ve had 6,626 ‘hits’ from the Eddystone beacons, a staggering 26 times more responses and far beyond what we expected in this geography. Admitedly, these are simply notification to visitors, and do not mean that the visitor responds to the notification. But what the number tells us is that even in a small island in the Mediterranean, there is a significant amount of people who can ‘natively’ pick up Eddystone broadcasts on their phone.

Were we to use ibeacons in the park, we would need to develop a bespoke app dedicated to the Sculpture park and convince individuals to install it on their phone first, prior to them being able to interact with the beacons. Of course, the vast majority of visitors would not know that the app exists, so they would first need to be informed of that somehow. Now, consider what really happens in our scenario. We have deployed 10 signs in the park, with printed QR codes and NFC tags and visual instructions to visitors that explain to them how to interact with the signs and what information they can expect to receive by doing so. We’ve had 251 responses in a month using these technologies. And yet, were we to use ibeacons, not only would we have to carry the same step of using the signs to explain to users that an app exists for them to use, but they would have to carry out the additional steps of downloading an app, installing it, enabling Bluetooth if they haven’t done so, etc… one can reasonably assume that we would have had an even lower ibeacon response than the 251 hits we currently see against NFC and QR Codes.

As more people use Bluetooth on their phone to communicate with IoT gadgets, and as more and more web browsers support the Eddystone standard natively, the amount of individuals that are able to natively monitor for Eddystone beacons is only going to increase. Meanwhile, as app stores become ever more saturated, expecting our visitors to know of and download the specific app that we have developed capable of monitoring for the ibeacons in the location we manage, becomes ever less likely.

A communication strategy can only be successful if our audience has the ability to listen to us. In that respect, Eddystone has a tremendous advantage over competing technologies, that only stands to become more significant as time goes by.