First announced by Apple in 2013, iBeacons are a beacon format that allows a Bluetooth Low-Energy (BLE) device to interact natively with iOS apps, and to interact similarly with Android apps as well. Google did not announce their own format, called Eddystone, until 2015. Though a relative latecomer to the world of beacons, the Eddystone format is quickly taking over the market, due to flexibility of use, and the ability to interact natively with the Android OS itself, instead of being used only through an individual company’s apps.
Note that these two formats do not refer to the physical BLE device itself, and that most major manufacturers now produce beacons that are compatible with both formats. Bluetooth Low-Energy devices (as the name implies) can interact with any smart device that leverages Bluetooth technology. Most of these beacons are battery-powered, allowing them to be placed almost anywhere, including some that are designed specifically for outdoor use.
Where iBeacons only broadcast a unique identifier (UID) that must interact with an app to function, Eddystone beacons can transmit three types of data: a UID, a secure URL, and telemetry data, which contains information about the beacon itself and any attached sensors, such as battery status and temperature data.
One major concern with the Eddystone format is that, with three signals being broadcast as opposed to one, your BLE device’s battery consumption is sure to increase. However, most beacons do not need to always broadcast all three of these signals, and the beacons never actually broadcast all these signals simultaneously, instead broadcasting each at different intervals.
However, the popularity of the Eddystone format has pushed beacon manufacturers to improve the efficiency of their products, especially since there is a demand to not only transmit signals at higher intervals, but in multiple formats: such as broadcasting both iBeacon and (multiple) Eddystone signals from a single BLE device.
BLE devices that are placed in outdoor environments can have an increased power demand as well, as temperature can have a great effect on overall battery life.
In the end, it is the manufacturer of the device itself that will largely dictate the battery life of a particular BLE device, and is possibly the largest factor to consider when deciding on a beacon to purchase. And of course, there are also instances where battery-powered BLE devices would be less useful than one’s that can be externally powered, such as beacons embedded within machines that draw power themselves: like parking meters and vending machines.
Using beacons to “geopush” messages to devices when they enter or leave a given area is actually far more energy efficient than the older method, which relied on GPS data to determine a device’s physical location. Using GPS and traditional location methods are some of the most battery draining activities one can do with a smart device. BLE can also be much more accurate in pinpointing devices, though the context is more restricted (short range).
Also, this energy consumption is another factor that is quickly improving as BLE technology becomes more widely used. For example, interacting with an iBeacon from an iPhone 4S or earlier drains the battery about twice as fast as newer iPhone models. The drain typically comes from the fact that Bluetooth services need to remain on, and that the app that will accept the beacon’s UID signal needs to be running (or in most cases, to at least be open in the background, which still has a battery cost).
The Eddystone beacon format can help decrease this consumption with the use of URL signals. These signals are handled directly through the OS, or often through Google Chrome, which is installed on many non-Android devices as well. In both of these cases (even when Chrome is running) the signal does not “wake” a background app to perform a function, as is the case of many apps that make use of UID signals. Instead, the URL will simply push a “notification” to the app or device, allowing the user to decide when or if to open the link in a browser. Eddystone URL signals also force the use of “link shorteners” to further limit the amount of data that is sent with each signal (saving the beacon’s battery power as well).
It is also worth noting that with the popularity of the Eddystone format, other mobile browsers are also providing URL signal support (for people that don’t like Chrome) such as Opera and FireFox, and there are also standalone apps designed specifically to interact with Google’s “Physical Web“.
Although iBeacon and Eddystone UID signals function very similarly, on Android devices, an Eddystone signal can actually “wake” an app that is installed on a device, but is not running in the background. If an app is not installed on a device, the UID can produce a notification to install the app from the Google Play Store. iBeacon signals, as mentioned above, can only be processed through a pre-installed app.
The earlier release of iBeacons means that Google has some catching up to do before it can claim ownership of the beacon-protocol market, but there are many advantages to the Eddystone format. First it is an “open-source” technology, so improvements and features are being added almost constantly. Apple, on the other hand, has produced only one major update in that time (more to do with allowing BLE beacons to be useful as an MDM tool than adding any functionality to the format itself).
In addition to Eddystone’s ability to drive app installs (explained above), app-beacon interactions can also be facilitated through Google’s “Instant Apps” (discussed in an earlier post) which allows users to preview and use some functionality of an app by “streaming” content and not having to actually download and install a new app.
Another feature that is unique to Eddystone, is that almost any Android device can be used as a BLE device through the use of a free app. This can be very handy for testing and development purposes, where function needs to be built before the number and type of beacons you will need is established.
Digital Fractal Technologies is an Edmonton, Alberta based mobile app development company that focuses on data-driven mobile applications for enterprise clients. We develop both cross-platform apps as well as native mobile applications. For a free app consultation, please contact us.