Before you begin, here’s a primer in laymen’s terms on iBeacon as most don’t know what it is. If you’re already up to speed, continue on to the next paragraph. It’s technology that uses bluetooth instead of cell signal to do two things First—broadcast down to the meter where you are to another beacon and Second—allow an app to broadcast information to you when you are in range. Any iOS device after the iPhone 4S can be an iBeacon OR you can buy small little bottlecap sized devices as independent iBeacons. It’s an intelligent way to connect you who has become a digital object through your mobile phone to any other physical object in close proximity such as a person or place. Think of it as the ability to turn anything non digital into something digital such as a store, your friend, a painting inside the museum, or even a tree (why not?).
I’m trying to make sense of iBeacons and related technology for a while now. What are the opportunities? How it can iBeacons be implemented? What does it all means? After a lot of thinking, my gut feeling is this: iBeacons will have the same impact on the world that broadband did almost 20 years ago. Why? iBeacons are the opportunity to lay down infrastructure that makes something entirely new possible. Steve’s recent post talks about the Last Mile problem as a point of comparison for iBeacons. It’s dead on.
We laid down the foundation of broadband, and a platform was born — a platform that gave rise to social networking, internet video, and SaaS. We laid the pipes… and developers built things we never thought possible.
In a very similar vein, I believe iBeacons are going to be the final mile, the connection to every person and place in the real world. We connected people to the internet, we made it mobile, and now we need the final mile to connect it all back to the real world. What if we made the real world the platform? What if there was an API to access the people moving in the streets and the every place in the real world?
There are already hundreds of millions of beacons waiting to be used worldwide — every single iPhone and iPad after the 4S can be used as an iBeacon. Our phones are always with us and many retail shops have started to use iPads that are stationary. We could also set geofencing so that when an iPhone is within a certain location is is authorized as an iBeacon. Though separate hardware versions of iBeacons will be installed, there is already a tremendous mass of potential beacons already out in the wild. They’re just waiting to be leveraged.
Most of the industry thinks of beacons as focused on “places” — the retail shop, the museum, or the ballpark. The more intriguing aspect of beacons is setting up individual people as beacons. What information would you want to share semi-anonymously with other folks nearby or what information would you want to share with friends already? Josh Miller of Betaworks and founder of Branch, hit on this with his post a few weeks ago — we often connect to stable objects like our car with blueooth, but what if we could connect to people? That’s powerful. Connecting online with the real world is more than just connecting with inanimate objects like a store. It’s as if we were to have cities that were fully built out with stores, hospitals, workplaces, and more, yet no one was in the city — the landmarks we build in the city are only good if they’re filled with people. We should start thinking about making people and the content they want to share, “available” as beacons.
An example might be an app that allows you to anonymously and automatically pass photos, video, and notes to anyone else you pass by with the same app installed. Imagine if your walk around the city everyday resulted in you “picking up” a bunch of photos, videos, and notes that you wanted the world to see. Serendipity at its finest.
This is where everyone’s head is already at — having places as beacons. Think of it less as just places, but any object of importance. The street sign, the local shop, the picture at the museum, and more. What if any developer in the world could make an API call to that object with their app? We need to think about objects receiving beacons not as an exercise of one to one, but as an exercise of one to many. One beacon for an object can serve many folks. An object without a beacon is like a certain town without cell phone service- it disappears from the network and loses all value.
There needs to be a Comcast level endeavor to lay beacons across the country. There’s no simple or easy way to get the entire country or even the entire world to be beacon ready. It also can’t happen on a haphazard or small scale. If beacons only exist in fragmented cluster, it’s not going to attract developers or consumers. A startup or large company needs to make an effort to blanket the entire world with beacons — either through turning existing iDevices into beacons OR giving away small $5 beacons. Andrew Mason had a good idea the other day on Twitter:
It seems like it costs a lot, but in reality it doesn’t. To lay beacons across the entire US would cost about 1% of Whatsapp purchase price (20 million small businesses, 10 dollars a piece at wholesale is 200mil/19bil). That’s also far less than it cost to lay fiber across the entire country for high speed Internet.
This is the really exciting aspect of everything here. Instead of many different beacon platforms, there should be one massive beacon platform that any developer in the world has access to — think of it like Twilio for the real world. What if the developer could get access to any of the information that person or place is broadcasting as a beacon? Facebook and Opentable could certainly lay their own beacons, but that isn’t interesting unless they’re available to everybody.
Have thoughts, questions, etc? Email me: firstname.lastname@example.org