Beacon Hardware Decision
Beacon provides us the ability to create applications which are location aware, context aware and personalized. This is the data which cannot be faked.
Beacons come in different shapes and sizes. Since they all need to be based on iBeacon specification, it seems that we can be provider agnostic here. Had this been the case, then you could just get the cheapest of all as every beacon would function exactly the same. This is the reason, beacon providers keep trying differentiating themselves providing certain value additions. As a solution developer based on beacon technology, this would make our job a little difficult. I thought this would be a good idea to discuss various beacon hardware from different manufacturers, and see what I personally like / dislike in them.
Just remember this acronym: S3C2RIP. This is Security, Specs, SDK, Configuration, Charging, Range, Indoor / Outdoor and Price. Obviously, they are not in the order of their importance but all of them are required for selecting a particular beacon provider.
Who would be making this decision?
I think the decision would be done by the solution providers. If I am developing a solution for a retail, this decision would be made by me. This can be an add-on for the app I am providing to the retail store. I can charge my clients the add-on cost for proximity based services.
The shops on the main street (Mom & Pop shops), can also take advantage of beacons by advertising coupons for people who are already in their close proximity. In this case, the decision would still be made by solution provider. Now he can charge the shop for the coupons advertised.
There are a number of beacon providers. Estimote is hands down the most famous iBeacon tag provider. Please remember that this is not all-inclusive list, plus the order of provider in the list, is arbitrary. I just wanted to list the most common ones as the list is ever growing.
- Radius Network
- Qualcomm Gimbal
- MPact (Motorola)
How to decide
You can find three different specifications on the web. They are iBeacon (Apple), AltBeacon (Radius Network) and Placedge Beacon (Samsung). AltBeacon promotes itself as open specification but I was not able to find any beacon hardware other than ones from Radius Network itself. I guess we need an open specification but AltBeacon doesn’t seem to have flown in public eyes.
Security is always a relative concept. I think there are two important issues for iBeacon security. The are securing beacon configuration and broadcast advertisements.
The manufacturer generally provides an app to configure an iBeacon. The configuration involves setting the values for Proximity UUID, major and minor numbers. The question would be, can I get any app from market, which would allow me to configure your iBeacons. If yes, we have an issue. For a store example, this would mean that no customer would be getting the notifications about the wonderful things they can enjoy in their current visit.
Configuration App for your device
iBeacons require configuration for setting the values for Proximity UUID, major and minor numbers. The manufactures generally provide an app for this configuration. I have generally seen organization adopting an eco-system, like apple or android. If all of my employees are using android, and there is no android configuration app, there is a problem.
SDK for App Development
As an app developer, we don’t want to target specially iOS or Android operating system individually. As a matter of fact, we don’t generally have a choice for commercial apps if we are serious about selling our app in the market. We have to develop targeting multiple operating systems. Beacon providers include SDK package for making it easier for app development. We need to check whether there is a SDK for our targeting platform.
Beacons are based on Bluetooth Low Energy. So they don’t drain a lot of battery. The advertised battery life of Estimote IBeacon is 3 years. Motorola’s MPact beacon has its battery life based on the mode. The minimum battery life is in MPact mode (1 year).
But they still need power for their operations. Most of the beacons in the market use Coin batteries. One Radius network’s beacon hooks up to USB charger. This should be great for your testing and development. It is difficult to find USB hooks in the actual environments.
It would be very seldom that you would need to change the batteries of a beacon. But how to check if the beacon needs a replacement battery now? Definitely, we shouldn’t have to wait until we stop getting the notification data for a few days, and then just change the battery. Beacon providers have tried to make our life easier a little here e.g. MPact mode for Motorola’s MPact beacon provides visibility into battery status remotely.
Beacon signals are Bluetooth Low Energy signals. It has a range of upto 70 meters (230 ft.). I have noticed that some beacon providers just want to play it safe and advertise a range lesser than 70 meters. But usually, you would see something like this:
Indoor / Outdoor Operations
Buying decision should also depend on the conditions we are planning to keep the beacons in. We might need to place beacons outside. In this case, they need to withstand outside conditions including sunlight, water and high / low temperature.
But do remember that Bluetooth has known limitation with water as it absorbs radio signals. So you might experience dropping the range of operations during the rain specially because of reduced signal strength.
Estimote advertises its Beacons to be water resistant. They are in silicone casing. The ideal operating temperature lies within -10°C (14°F) and 60°C (140°F).
Price & Packaging
One thing I specially dislike by many beacon providers is how they package it. The package includes different counts of iBeacons. You can buy them in the package of three, five, ten or more. I am a developer and just need one to develop an app. Why should I buy a pack for my testing. Estimote pack gets to approximately $100.
Beacons are simple devices based on Bluetooth Smart technology. As a beacon, the minimum requirement is just to support advertisements. This should make hardware really cheap. As discussed above, generally, they come in packages containing more than one beacons.
But proximity solutions wouldn’t be as cheap.
Estimote Beacons are also equipped with accelerometer and temperature sensors. The accelerometer is used to detect motion. I have seen other providers also including additional sensors e.g. iBKS105 has a hall sensor, which makes the beacon enter in configuration mode. Adding new hardware increases cost of manufacturing. If my beacon has just enough hardware as I need to develop my solution, we should less care for the additional sensors it has.