A “Paradigm Shift”. That’s what the marketing for Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) Beacons has suggested. We’ve also heard other buzzwords like “hyper-local contextualized content”, which is corporate jargon for “it serves you ads”. Apple introduced its iBeacon technology and Google followed suit with Eddystone, but they both agreed that these quarter sized devices would revolutionize how consumers interact with retail locations, and beyond.
So where is the revolution?
Certainly BLE Beacons have incredible potential. The technology is the inheritor of 4 generations of Bluetooth technology, similar to the common pairing method for speakers and wireless accessories. The latest generation, Bluetooth 4.0, focuses on maximizing battery life and enabling 1 way transmissions in short bursts. A device using this technology can stay powered on a coin-sized battery for up to 3 years. They’re also cheaper than a King Sized candy bar from your neighborhood convenience store.
The possibilities of this technology are only limited by the imagination. BLE Beacons allow a business to track a customer’s precise location within a meter or less, and serve content based on their environment. Sending a buy 2 get 1 free chocolate bar coupon as a customer strolls through the candy aisle could pay for the beacon that serves the ad. Large entertainment venues like stadiums and museums could provide directions to the concession stand, or direct foot traffic to the bathrooms with shorter lines. Apple implemented beacons at over 200 of their locations to send customers push notifications when their orders were ready or it was their turn in line.
With so much potential, why don’t we see these science fiction augmented reality interactions every day? Bluetooth Low Energy was introduced in 2010, and in the past 7 years there has been little widespread adoption.
The answer lies within the habits of customers.
1. Bluetooth is turned off
Gone are the days when every other person sported a slick Motorola Razr and spoke through a bluetooth earpiece. The advent of touch screens brought battery life to the fore of a Smartphone’s merit. As anyone who’s phone is about to shutdown knows, turning off non-essential functions is key to prolonging battery life. Phone screens have continued to grow, while battery technology has remained mostly the same. Consumers are more conscious than ever of turning off GPS, Bluetooth, and even WiFi as battery life demands.
BLE simply will not work without Bluetooth enabled on the customer’s phone. One slide in the settings menu, and they go from data goldmine to completely invisible. It cannot be understated how devastating this is to the technology. Consumers are inadvertently undercutting beacon technology simply by extending their battery life. And really, who can blame them?
2. Requires an app to be installed
When the iPhone was announced in 2007 it started a tidal wave of cheap, low-effort software that created more than a handful of overnight millionaires.
Since then we’ve grown wary of allowing unknown publishers on our phones, or at the very least deleted unnecessary apps that provide little value on a day-to-day basis. Today more than 65% of smartphone users avoid any new apps each month. It’s clear that smartphone owners are suspicious of putting new software on their phones.
The problem with BLE Beacons is they almost always require an app to do their job. All those coupons, offers, and notifications need to come from an app that communicates with the beacons. That won’t happen if the customer refuses to download an app in the first place. Apple got away with it because they added beacon notifications directly to the App Store, which can’t be removed from the phone, but most spaces don’t have the luxury of having an app that is already installed.
Although there are efforts through the Eddystone protocol to enable an end user’s smartphone to see beacons without installing an app, it’s success has been limited. Internal testing has found receiving beacon messages without an app to be a complicated, frustrating experience requiring smartphone users to install the Physical Web app and adjust Chrome settings. That might not be that bad, except after all of that, beacon messages were still often missed by the customer even if they’re trying to see the beacon. Native support for beacons outside of apps by iOS and Android operating systems could make major improvements in this space.
3. Limited customer buy-in
It’s obvious that businesses could find many uses for beacons, but what about the customer? When polled 61% of customers said that the notifications beacons would give them would be harassing. Between the resistance to new apps and to BLE technology in the retail environment, it seems unlikely people will start adopting new habits to allow for Beacons to become commonplace. Where we stand today, the only people who regularly use Bluetooth Beacons are the people who develop the apps for them, a completely backward state of affairs for a technology that was promised to transform the retail environment.