Why You Should Care About Google's New Open-Source Bluetooth Beacons

By Chris Mills on at

Back in 2013, Apple enthusiastically announced iBeacons, Bluetooth-powered beacons that would interact with your iDevice. The groundbreaking devices were enthusiastically forgotten about by everyone but Apple Stores. Now though, thanks to Google’s rival project, Bluetooth beacons might not be dead yet.

Bluetooth beacons are tiny transmitters, which constantly beam out a signal to nearby devices, transmitting information about some point of interest. In the form of Apple iBeacons, they’ve mostly been used in Apple Stores to help people shop. But iBeacons only work with select, up-to-date iDevices, and Apple keeps its usual vice-like grip on the beacons themselves. All that combined means that Bluetooth beacons have yet to hit the mainstream. So why should you care about Google’s seemingly copycat version, dubbed Eddystone?

Two words: open source.

Eddystone is a protocol for open-source beacons, which could be produced by any manufacturer (Google already has loads lined up) for as little as £6 apiece. The can communicate with any Android or iOS smartphone, and be baked into almost anything.

Where iBeacons have fizzled, open-source Bluetooth beacons have the potential to be a big deal. One of the biggest innovations for smartphones in recent years has been the addition of contextual awareness; essentially, your phone can know when you’re in your house, in your car, or sightseeing at the Eiffel Tower, and respond accordingly.

But by and large, contextual awareness relies on phones knowing where they are, and what they’re talking to. Currently, that relies on scanning QR codes, connecting to Wi-Fi networks, or an active GPS location, which are all things that rely on you taking your phone out and do a thing, rather than having some nearby object alert you to something of interest.

But low-energy Bluetooth beacons have the potential to change all that: embed a Bluetooth beacon in a bus stop, and it can offer you the timetable when you stop there for ten seconds. Stick a beacon inside a restaurant, and it could offer you the menu on your phone when you walk in. Those are just a few examples, but with open-source beacons, the potential is limited to anywhere you can fit a small battery and a simple circuit.

This vision isn’t new, of course; Apple said the same stuff when introducing iBeacons back in 2013. But Eddystone has the potential to catch on where Apple’s beacons fell flat: by open-sourcing the project, Google has left beacon hardware, firmware, and the user experience up to other companies; Google’s just providing the parts that let beacons talk to phones with the least possible effort.

If Eddystone catches on — and that’s a big 'if' — that opens the door to all sorts of creative solutions that sees Eddystone baked into projects no one could dream of: after all, you probably didn’t look at the T-Mobile G1 and think of Android-powered-satellites. But here we are: it’s 2015, Nexus phones are orbiting overhead, and thanks to Google, the phone in your pocket might soon start talking to the traffic lights. [Google via Ars Technica]