Apple iBeacon challengers multiply: A look at five rivals

Apple iBeacon challengers multiply: A look at five rivals

Summary: Fueled by Apple's iBeacon specification, devices for location-based marketing initiatives are popping up in an array of company product portfolios. Here's a look at a few interesting players.

SHARE:

There's a battle brewing in the world of location-based beacons. Fueled by Apple's iBeacon specification, devices for location-based marketing initiatives are popping up in an array of company product portfolios — but among the claims of ingenuity, how do all the beacon players really stack up?

First a little beacon background. Those small pieces of hardware function like an indoor GPS system, exchanging data with apps on a phone to find a user's location. Once a consumer has an app enabled, the business can use it to trigger various types of campaigns for approaching consumers. The most common trigger used in beacons is a service called Bluetooth Low Energy, or BLE.

Apple first introduced iBeacon at last year's WWDC with the rollout of iOS 7. Since then the vendor market for BLE-enabled beacons has become increasingly crowded as indoor location becomes more ubiquitous. The omnipresence of beacons has also prompted application developers to begin building beacon support into other apps for retail, check-ins, or payment transactions.

And perhaps the influx of beacon options is also due to the bevy of SMBs and retailers that have discovered the technology's potential rewards. Businesses can use beacons to communicate and reach customers with efficiency similar to that of online-only competitors, with the added bonus of capturing key insights from the data and analytics left behind from the beacon's connection with a user's device. 

Aside from the Apple iBeacon, which undoubtedly has made the most contributions to beacon technology and has enjoyed the most success, other interesting beacon rollouts include Qualcomm's Gimbal, the Android-enabled Datzing, Phillips' lighting beacon, the MPact by Motorola Solutions, and the Swarm Portal. For the sake of remaining concise we'll keep the discussion narrowed to the five aforementioned players.  

Gimbal

Screen Shot 2014-06-23 at 10.39.40 AM

Gimbal provides businesses with geofencing, proximity positioning and targeted marketing opportunities.

Gimbal Proximity utilizes Gimbal's proximity beacons (which run on iBeacon specification) to provide micro-location awareness, which enables applications to determine their relative proximity. Gimbal Geofence is designed to provide low-power geofence-based location awareness of the end user's presence, including their arrival, departure and dwell times from the app-defined locations. Gimbal Interest Sensing provides inferred lists of end user interests to customize content and messaging without end-user input.

According to Bruce Krulwich, head analyst with Grizzly Analytics, Gimbal's beacons offer a few additional options that are not included in the iBeacon specification.

What is Apple iBeacon? Here's what you need to know

"Most iBeacon products are very similar in how they operate, since they're all compatible with Apple's specification," Krulwich said. "Gimbal's beacons, along with some others, offer additional options that are not in the iBeacon specification, such as encryption, which enables a store to be sure that only their own app can detect their own beacons."

Chris Losacco, a mobile strategist at Punchkick Interactive, said he finds Gimbal most interesting due to its combination of geolocation, iBeacon, and tracking of customer information across the entire ecosystem to promote contextual relevance.

Apple iBeacons: With great power comes great potential to annoy

TI's support of Apple's iBeacon adds enterprise, IoT heft

"Gimbal's combination of analytics, geo-fencing, iBeacons, user preferences, and messaging based on time blocks, etc., are capabilities that exceed even iBeacon's if implemented properly," Losacco said. "Gimbal's primary unique value proposition is its ability to identify user behavior across apps." 

Qualcomm recently announced it would spin off its Gimbal beacon technology into the standalone company Gimbal Inc.

"I think that Gimbal as an independent company will have a lot more focus on the beacon business, which will compensate for losing the resources of the bigger company," Krulwich added.

Datzing

Screen Shot 2014-06-23 at 10.55.43 AM

Founded in early 2011, Datzing is an iBeacon-like service for Android developed by former Nokia phone designer Frank Nuovo. 

The Datzing is essentially an iBeacon for Android phones, but it does have one feature that makes it pretty unique. Unlike other micro-location services that rely on proprietary beacons, businesses can leverage existing wifi and Bluetooth signals to utilize Datzing's detection technology — turning just about any device into a beacon.

For example, businesses with an Android phone at their disposal can install the Datzing app, and fairly easily and quickly can have the phone broadcasting various push campaigns to people passing by its field of reach. But beyond the phone, laptop computers and even Bluetooth-equipped cars can become Datzing beacons.

Of course the passersby must also have the Datzing app installed on their own device.

Punchkick's Losacco said Datzing's open format sets it apart from some of the other players.

"Datzing can be integrated into a low-level network with absolutely no up-front cost to purchase hardware, assuming you don't already have an Apple device that could be programmed as a beacon," said Losacco. "It is similar to Shopkick, in that your 'zings' will only be relevant to users of the app."

Datzing began a beta test in March and is expected to show up in the Google Play Store sometime this summer.

Philips' VLC beacon

philips-intelligent-lighting-diagram

Having already made a name for itself as an innovative light bulb maker, Philips made a go at location beacons earlier this year when a German retailer piloted its LED-powered intelligent lighting system.

Using visual light communications (VLC), the connected retail lighting system acts as a positioning grid which can be used by a smartphone to figure out where it is within a store. The technology works by flickering LED lights at an extremely high rate (too fast for the human eye to detect) and using that flicker for one-directional data transfer from light to phone. The phone's front-facing camera is the detection point for the flickering and the trigger for the data transfer. 

Philips' rationale behind the smart, connected light bulb is simple: Stores will always need light, so why not make them multifunctional? The bulbs also have the ability to communicate with a limitless number of phones, so long as they are within sight distance, and they give Philips a foray into the expanding Internet of Things space.

But disadvantages still loom. The biggest and most obvious downside to the need for line-of-site is the ease at which communications can be blocked by just the body position of the phone owner.

"Philips is an uber-concept that faces several challenges," said Punchkick's Losacco. "The Philips system requires every location to be outfitted with an entirely new lighting scheme. It can be expensive to implement and isn't reliable in terms of consumer engagement. The technology's reliance on signals can prove difficult in placement for retail environments as it can be easily blocked by a user's body position. The downside to that — people need to hold their devices so that the camera is facing the lights."

Motorola MPact 

MSI_infographic_052014

Just last month Motorola Solutions launched the MPact platform as a hybrid location-based marketing tool. It uses both wifi and Bluetooth Smart technology to offer different levels of detection: wifi is for the more rough location detection, while Bluetooth is for the finer pinpointing.

Using both BLE and WiFi allows the MPact system to acquire specific location data from the BLE beacons, and the wifi then enables information sharing between the phone and the back-end server.

Along with use of Bluetooth Smart beacons, which transmit radio signals to smart phones and tablets, MPact can also operate in a mode compatible with Apple's iBeacon.

The MPact also provides analytics on customer visits and dwell time, obviously useful for retail chains. It has an HTML5 front-end and a hadoop backend for scalable big data crunching, giving it a bit of built-in data muscle that could end up setting it slightly apart from other players. 

Swarm Portal

Screen Shot 2014-06-23 at 12.50.41 PM

The San Francisco-based startup Swarm released the Swarm Portal in May as an iBeacon-based device targeting retail SMBs. 

The portal's sensors count each visitor to a physical retail store and the device relays that data to the retail store owner via Swarm's mobile app.

Rudd Davis, co-founder and CEO at Swarm gave a roundup of some of Swarm's benefits:

"What makes Swarm different is that we're able to leverage an individual shopper's visit and purchase history at the store to provide superior personalization," Davis said. "For example, a store can now use Swarm Portal's beacon capability to push product recommendations based on the shopper's past purchases. Swarm can also track whether the recommendation resulted in a purchase."  

Davis also touted Swarm's ability to automatically compile data into shopper profiles that the store can use to further engage the shopper personally. He also said a key element for Swarm is its integration with leading cloud-based POS systems, as well as legacy/hosted POS systems.  

"This gives retailers visibility into store visit and purchase behavior," he said.

Final thought

The iBeacon specification is pretty much everywhere. There are a few spin-offs trying to make it without using Apple's technology, but its unclear the amount of sucess they will ultimately have as more end-users grow accustomed to that particular specification.

In the end, each beacon device has something to offer businesses, it just depends on the scale and the level of location precision driving their deployment.

According to Grizzly's Krulwich, iBeacon will likely play a major role in branching out location technologies beyond push notifications and marketing endeavors.  

"I expect that many of the players in the indoor location area, including Apple and including a lot of the beacon makers, will soon integrate iBeacon-based proximity sensing with other location services such as mapping, search, navigation, and more."

Topics: CXO, Emerging Tech, Hardware, SMBs, Innovation

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Talkback

18 comments
Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Open standard

    It's really important that these services are developed around open standards. The thought of what Apple could do to disenfranchise a large proportion of people with iBeacon is quite scary... a world where Apple users wave their platinum cards around for all to see and everyone else just has to watch from the sidelines... it really isn't a very good customer experience if that happens. It's bad enough that there is this iThing app rush, when most services could be delivered via a web service instead and be usable by everyone. I'm not so sure about what the future is for iBeacon, but the kind of future I could envisage makes me hope the whole thing is stillborn.
    dc@...
    • Actual Target

      After reading this I ran into one question: who is the target audience?
      When I think about it, they likely have Android devices.
      rhonin
  • iBeacon - Off

    When I shop, I know what I want (prior planning minimizes impulse shopping). I go, get in, get out, go home, relax.

    I gather I'm not the target for this :-)
    rhonin
    • The good thing

      Isn't that one of the best features of iBeacon though - it's purely opt-in and the beacon part collects no data.
      rbgaynor
  • turn your phone into a nagging dynamic billboard

    All I can think of when I read stories like this is how aggressive marketers could be if they get their way. They probably will eventually want the app to speak to you too.. Your at a store.. "hey look down this aisle" "hey look at those boxer briefs for only $3.99" "hey did you ever try wiping with Charmin? try it NOW". Maybe it could help when I am in a rush and just want to find a bbq spatula and be on my way, then maybe it could tell me where to go in the store. But probably not, it would say "before we tell you where to find the spatula, try the sample bbq'd squirrel nuts in aisle 5" Please rate the nuts before continuing. "We noticed you like nuts, you'll love these breasts". nope
    Anony_mouse
  • i do not want beacons

    when i leave the house, bluetooth is OFF, WIFI is OFF

    i do not install retailer apps

    when i shop, i know what i want AND WHAT I DO NOT WANT

    what i do not want is more advertising ... a store i used to shop at put in these "things" that start talking and flashing lights as you approach ... very annoying ... I SAID USE TO SHOP THERE, I NO LONGER ENTER THAT CHAIN
    bmwr606@...
    • Then don't upgrade!

      The Low level Bluetooth technology that they are talking about in this article is part of a technology you will see embedded in upcoming smart phones. Bluetooth, can be turned off - Low Level BT cannot ;)

      The demand from the general public wanting to have device automatically pair with hardware will have it's downside. And that downside, will be open-ended marketing through devices such as the Beacon. Sir, there is no "off" switch. Enjoy!
      hybridpaperguy
      • Already there

        There are already lots of smartphones phones that have Bluetooth LE (Bluetooth 4.0). You absolutely can turn it off and services like iBeacon are strictly opt-in.
        rbgaynor
      • There is an off switch

        Just turn the phone off while shopping or leave it in the car. I do both all the time.
        nrkmann@...
      • Need to check your facts

        I don't know about android but on the iPhone when you turn off bluetooth it's off. Even BT LE. No ifs ands or buts. It's off, period. So next time you might want to check your facts before making such broad statements. Apple even tells you that you have to turn bluetooth on to be able to use iBeacon. Here's their article talking about it: http://support.apple.com/kb/HT6048
        bvirga0218@...
      • iBeacon and Apple

        I'm sure iOS will allow you to opt-out (or elect not to opt-in).

        This is Apple - who makes their money by selling you a device. Not Google who makes their money by selling you.
        varase
      • You are wrong

        Sorry, hybridpaperguy but you are incorrect. Bluetooth Low Energy requires Bluetooth to be switched on on the phone to work. So you can switch it off very easily.
        rks1966
  • It's all the same tech

    Beacon, iBeacon are inherently the same. The main point is the BLE - Low Energy Bluetooth. Which will be a technology that will be sported in all the next gen smart phones. The demand for "always connected" devices has been heard. If you don't want anything to do with it, I recommend never upgrading ;) Hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it is the next big step in marketing and ecommerce.
    hybridpaperguy
    • Never upgrading not an option

      Gee if I didn't like the options in Win 2000 or NT, I would still be on a 486 with Win 95 and unable to participate in this discussion. No one is driving their 1950s, 60s, or 70s car they bought new, well Grace Gibson has owned her 57 Chevy since new but she is the exception, and we don't keep our computers much past five years or so. Yes there is a time when resistance is futile.
      nrkmann@...
  • No Thanks

    "Gimbal's primary unique value proposition is its ability to identify user behavior across apps."

    And that right there is why Gimbal is a bad idea.
    rbgaynor
  • Might not be that bad

    Ok, I download my grocery list into my favorite grocery store. When I get there I guides me to the items on my list. It is ok for the app to make suggestions along the way, in case I forgot something but it can not be to intrusive. It may reminded me that I have not bought milk in 2 weeks and maybe I need some.
    If done right, count me in, if not, heck I can always do it the old fashion way. Nothing is stopping me.
    davidmpaul
  • iBeacon

    everybody should look at the Just Desire platform these guys started the whole process off and have the best product by far
    james haggas
  • More than just retail

    I see many enterprise applications for beacons in the areas of health and safety and emergency response.
    dbezerkeley