​How Opera's latest Android test build brings home the Bluetooth beacon

The labs build of Opera for Android comes with URL beacon detection, enabling the browser to pick up data from transmitters using Bluetooth low-energy messages for highly-localized information.

URL beacon detection in the Opera Android browser test build allows this Norwegian user to see when the next number 30 bus is due. Image: Opera

Looking at Opera Software's launch of a test build of Opera 32 for Android, it immediately becomes clear that the big new feature in this release is its support for URL beacons.

Beacons are small, often battery-powered radio transmitters that send out data using Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). The data is intended for nearby users, as BLE signals do not propagate very far. So the data usually relates to physical locations.

That data could be general information about immediate area or something more specific, such as how long it will be until the next bus arrives.

Many foresee that beacons could become a very important part of the Internet of Things.

Using data broadcast from beacons, Opera can present relevant information from BLE transmitters in the vicinity in a dedicated browser tab. Opera calls this tab the 'Nearby tab'.

With several competing beacon standards available, Opera has chosen to support the Eddystone message format, which originates from Google. Examples of other beacon message standards are AltBeacon and Apple's iBeacon.

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Among the features the Eddystone standard supports is URL broadcast. The beacon simply transmits a URL, which the receiver can browse to access the data related to the beacon's position. This is the functionality Opera have implemented in their lab build preview.

All BLE beacons -- Eddystone included -- broadcast a unique identification number, which needs to be supported by a custom-built app. With a URL broadcast, all that is required is a web browser to pick up the related data.

That feature is an exact fit for Opera's strategy, which is about an open web as opposed to the walled gardens of dedicated apps running on their respective operating systems.

As all the BLE beacons are broadcast-only, you might expect them to be totally secure because the beacon itself cannot 'see' who is listening to it. However, the owner of the beacon must have a back-end system that provides the data relating to the beacons, and at that level it is very easy to monitor users' IP addresses as they move around the beacons' coverage area.

Opera regards this failing as a privacy flaw and has implemented an anonymity service in conjunction with support for beacon. Instead of letting the mobile browser and the back-end beacon support system communicate directly, Opera sets up a gateway server between them.

This server will fetch the related beacon data on the end users' behalf, and then pre-process the data for the mobile browser before it is sent down to the specific mobile browser. This approach is very similar to Opera Mini's architecture.

This preview release is available in the form of an Android .apk file.

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