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.

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?

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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.

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"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.

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"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

About

Natalie Gagliordi is a staff writer for CBS Interactive based in Louisville, Kentucky, covering business technology for ZDNet. She previously worked as the editor of Kiosk Marketplace, an online B2B trade publication that focused on interactive self-service technology, while also contributing to additional websites that covered retail tec... Full Bio

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