Google has a long history of coming up with a great idea, getting developers excited, and then changing its mind. The Physical Web was one of those brainstorms. The concept was simple: Bluetooth beacons broadcast messages containing a uniform [or universal] resource locator (URL). Your smartphone or tablet receives these messages and then with your permission displays them in the order of relevance. You pick the message you want, and it takes you to a Web page. Simple. The bad news is that Google decided last October it had other plans for the concept. The good news is that most of the Physical Web features live on in Google’s Nearby platform.
If the Physical Web sounds a lot like standard “beaconology,” you’re on the right track. Although they can do many things, beacons (Figure 1) primary use is to drive sales in retail stores and track what customers do while they browse through aisles. In contrast, the Physical Web used beacons only as gateways to the Web without the need for an app, and anyone could use them as they’re cheap and simple to set up. Consequently, the Physical Web would have brought beacon capabilities to a far greater number of applications and types of users, as they can be attached to virtually any physical entity (be it a parking meter, bank, airline, city bike, or even your dog Spot).
Figure 1: Bluetooth beacons are available in a variety of shapes and sizes, many of which are very inexpensive.
Using Spot as an example, if you put a Bluetooth beacon (on his collar and he got lost, someone who found him could simply enable beacon notifications on his or her phone, and Spot’s broadcast message (named Spot) would be high on the list of URLs in the display. Tapping the broadcast message could bring Spot’s rescuer to the Web site of a nearby Humane Society or some other rescue organization. Other possibilities for use include a bus broadcasting its next stop, an on-the-spot rental of a city bike, a video-manual tutorial for an appliance, or even toy controlling using an app.
Google didn’t eliminate support for the Physical Web because of a lack of interest but rather to consolidate its activities within an ecosystem family that includes its beacon protocols: Eddystone and Nearby. Adding pieces of what was the Physical Web into this larger ecosystem also brings Google’s massive artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities into full view so that broadcast URLs can become prime targets, reducing the possibility of a notifications bombardment.
If you’ve never heard of Nearby, it consists of three functions: Messaging, connecting, and notifying. Nearby Messages lets you pass small binary payloads between Internet-connected Android and iOS devices and requires a Nearby Messages application programming interface (API) that is available for both Android and iOS. The devices don't have to be on the same network, but they do have to be connected to the Internet. This API function combines classic Bluetooth®, low energy versions of Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and near-ultrasonic audio to synchronize devices.
Nearby Connections is a peer-to-peer networking API for Android that lets apps discover, connect to, and exchange data with smartphones in real-time and independent of any connection to a network. Both Messages and Connections facilitate multiplayer gaming, real-time collaborating, group forming, resource broadcasting, or content sharing. Finally, Nearby Notifications (for Android only) is the portion of Nearby that incorporates some of the Physical Web features.
That said, as Google is the custodian of Nearby Notifications, many of the things developers wanted to achieve with the Physical Web are no longer possible, although Nearby can link directly to an app installed on a phone as well as launch a browser from a broadcast URL. The Physical Web was a much more generic approach driven by a developer community, while Nearby and Google’s other beacon-based schemes are more app-centric tools. There are dozens of apps on Google Play that support these tools as well as the many other functions that Nearby enables.
So, while the original concept for the Physical Web is gone, its potential is still unfolding, although in a more “corporate” form under the auspices of Google, the apps that use Nearby as their foundation, and other companies that build on them to make “beaconing” even more useful. Nevertheless, given Google’s history of changing things, the question remains whether anything within Nearby will have a long-term roadmap.
Barry Manz is president of Manz Communications, Inc., a technical media relations agency he founded in 1987. He has since worked with more than 100 companies in the RF and microwave, defense, test and measurement, semiconductor, embedded systems, lightwave, and other markets. Barry writes articles for print and online trade publications, as well as white papers, application notes, symposium papers, technical references guides, and Web content. He is also a contributing editor for the Journal of Electronic Defense, editor of Military Microwave Digest, co-founder of MilCOTS Digest magazine, and was editor in chief of Microwaves & RF magazine.
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