Wi-Fi challenges Bluetooth for the beacon market

Is Wi-Fi Aware sufficiently different and compelling to entice developers?

The proximity engagement market just became more competitive. The Wi-Fi Alliance recently unveiled Wi-Fi Aware as an alternative to Bluetooth Smart, the technology behind the Apple iBeacon and Google Eddystone specifications.

Question: Is Wi-Fi Aware sufficiently different and compelling to entice beacon device and proximity engagement application developers?

A quick refresher: Proximity engagement solutions bring to life places and objects in the physical world by tagging them with digital content. Apple’s iBeacon relies primarily on smartphone apps, and most iBeacon developers are focused on retail store shopper engagement. Google’s Eddystone aims to create a “physical web” of sensors and machines accessed via mobile browsers. Both emphasize the use of small, inconspicuous devices that broadcast the same short message over and over, can be deployed practically anywhere, and can run for years off a coin cell battery.

The beacon market is just getting started. There are on the order of 100,000 beacons in use today. That number could grow rapidly to 50 million. Although many companies have invested money and resources in Bluetooth beacons, it’s not too late for a competing technology to help drive and ultimately dominate the market.

Like Bluetooth Smart, Wi-Fi Aware provides a generic framework for proximity engagement. However, the Wi-Fi Alliance emphasizes three key differences that it believes set Wi-Fi Aware apart.

First, Wi-Fi Aware is designed to leverage Wi-Fi infrastructure. Wi-Fi infrastructure devices will be able to simultaneously serve as access points and proximity beacons. For instance, a large retail store that already uses Wi-Fi for inventory management could add shopper engagement to an existing network. The beacons in dual-mode devices won’t need batteries and can be easily added to Wi-Fi network management systems. According to the Wi-Fi Alliance, some existing Wi-Fi infrastructure is firmware upgradable to Wi-Fi Aware, although it’s up to individual manufacturers to decide whether to offer upgrades.

Second, Wi-Fi Aware offers its own high-speed communication link. Bluetooth beacons must rely on separate cellular or Wi-Fi connectivity. That can be a problem for Bluetooth beacons. For instance, a Bluetooth beacon inside a building that relies on cellular connectivity may work for some mobile subscribers but not others, because not all carriers have the same coverage. (Some mobile phone frequencies are better for penetrating buildings than others.) While a venue operator could always deploy separate Bluetooth beacon and Wi-Fi networks, it may be easier to deploy and manage a single “dual-mode” network.

Third, Wi-Fi Aware is bidirectional. This isn’t really different. Bluetooth Smart is also bidirectional. While Bluetooth beacons are typically configured to operate in broadcast-only mode, most can receive data for monitoring and control purposes. The Bluetooth community chooses to emphasize that unidirectional beacons can run for years off batteries. The Wi-Fi Alliance chooses to emphasize the advantages of bidirectional proximity engagement via line-powered devices.

It’s not surprising that the Wi-Fi Alliance positions Wi-Fi Aware as being able to do everything for proximity engagement that Bluetooth Smart can do — and more. Being able to leverage the vast and growing Wi-Fi infrastructure is a major advantage, but being late to market is a problem. There are at least two leading vendors already offering Wi-Fi access points with integrated Bluetooth beacons (Aruba Networks and Cisco Meraki). The Wi-Fi Alliance’s best strategy for getting the industry to embrace Wi-Fi Aware is to insist that it was worth the wait and any extra effort.

The first Wi-Fi Aware products may not appear until the end of the year, so we won’t know the answers to certain questions until we see the products in action. The Wi-Fi Alliance has put considerable effort into making Wi-Fi Aware power efficient. Will we see small, battery-operated Wi-Fi Aware beacons that are competitive with Bluetooth beacons (which are even available as stickers)? Some proximity engagement markets require a critical mass of users. How long will it be before there are tens of millions of Wi-Fi Aware-capable mobile devices? Finally, will Wi-Fi access points with integrated Wi-Fi Aware have any performance or functional advantages over Wi-Fi access points with integrated Bluetooth beacons?

In 2005, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) announced that it was working with other industry groups to develop a high-speed mode based on a technology called “ultra-wideband.” However, ultra-wideband development ran into some hitches and the Bluetooth SIG concluded that it made more sense to simply adopt the proven and popular Wi-Fi technology for its high-speed mode.

Given that history, it seems reasonable to ask why the Wi-Fi Alliance didn’t choose a proven and popular technology, Bluetooth Smart, as its proximity engagement technology. After all, the main advantages of Wi-Fi Aware — working with Wi-Fi infrastructure, providing high speed connectivity, and serving bi-directional applications — can all be realized using a combination of Bluetooth Smart and Wi-Fi. Only time will tell if Wi-Fi Aware is a necessary alternative or a missed opportunity.

Beacon developers, what do you think?

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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