iBeacons or The Physical Web?

For the past year at the AppsLab we have been exploring the possibilities of advanced user interactions using BLE beacons. A couple days ago, Google (unofficially) announced that one of their Chrome teams is working on what I’m calling the gBeacon. They are calling it the Physical Web.
This is how they describe it:

“The Physical Web is an approach to unleash the core superpower of the web: interaction on demand. People should be able to walk up to any smart device – a vending machine, a poster, a toy, a bus stop, a rental car – and not have to download an app first. Everything should be just a tap away.

The Physical Web is not shipping yet nor is it a Google product. This is an early-stage experimental project and we’re developing it out in the open as we do all things related to the web. This should only be of interest to developers looking to test out this feature and provide us feedback.

Here is a short run down of how iBeacon works vs The Physical Web beacons:


The iBeacon profile advertises a 30 byte packet containing three values that combined make a unique identifier: UUID, Major, Minor. The mobile device will actively listen for these packets. When it gets close to one of them it will query a database (cloud) or use hard-coded values to determine what it needs to do or show for that beacon. Generally the UUID is set to identify a common organization. Major value is an asset within that organization, and Minor is a subset of assets belonging to the Major.
For example, if I’m close to the Oracle campus, and I have an Oracle application that is actively listening for beacons, then as I get within reach of any beacon my app can trigger certain interactions related to the whole organization (“Hello Noel, Welcome to Oracle.”) The application had to query a database to know what that UUID represents. As I reach building 200, my application picks up another beacon that contains a Major value of lets say 200. Then my app will do the same and query to see what it represents (“You are in building 200.”) Finally when I get close to our new Cloud UX Lab, a beacon inside the lab will broadcast a Minor ID that represents the lab (“This is the Cloud UX lab, want to learn more?”)

iBeacons are designed to work as full closed ecosystem where only the deployed devices (app+beacons+db) will know what a beacon represents. Today I can walk to the Apple store and use a Bluetooth app to “sniff” BLE devices, but unless I know what their UUID/Major/Minor values represent I cannot do anything with that information. Only the official Apple Store app will know what do with when is nearby beacons around the store (“Looks like you are looking for a new iPhone case.”)

As you can see the iBeacon approach is a “push” method where the device will proactively push actions to you. In contrast the Physical Web beacon proposes to act as a “pull” or on-demand method.

Physical Web

The Physical Web gBeacon will advertise a 28 bytes packet containing an encoded URL. Google wants to use the familiar and established method of URLs to tell an application, or an OS, where to find information about physical objects. They plan to use context (physical and virtual) to top rank what might be more important to you at the current time and display it.


Image from https://github.com/google/physical-web/blob/master/documentation/introduction.md

The Physical Web approach is designed to be a “pull” discovery service where most likely the user will initiate the interaction. For example, when I arrive to the Oracle campus, I can start an application that will scan for nearby gBeacons or I can open my Chrome browser and do a search.  The application or browser will use context to top rank nearby objects combined with results. It can also use calendar data, email or Google Now to narrow down interests.  A background process with “push” capabilities could also be implemented. This process could have filters that can alert the user of nearby objects of interest.  These interests rules could be predefined or inferred by using Google’s intelligence gathering systems like Google Now.

The main difference between the two approaches is that iBeacons is a closed ecosystem (app+beacons+db) and the Physical Web is intended to be a public self discovered (app/os+beacons+www) physical extension of the web. Although the Physical Web could also be restricted by using protected websites and encrypted URLs.

Both approaches are accounting to prevent the misconception about these technologies: “I am going to be spammed as soon as I walk inside a mall?”  The answer is NO. iBeacons is an opt-in service within an app and the Physical Web beacons will mostly work on-demand or will have filter subscriptions.

So there you have it. Which method do you prefer?


  1. Hi Noel – long time, but I follow your tweets!

    My problem with Google’s gBeacon is, well, Google – and its “intelligence gathering systems.” URLs are Google’s primary vehicle of adding people and enriching its descriptions of us. Guaranteed your Chrome browser is mapping and selling the gBeacon info that Chrome is collecting as you wander the Lagoon. We also know from persistent, repeated experience that Google will invade and resell people’s privacy, in violation of its own supposed internal rules. When discovered it claims it was an innocent mistake, and no one gets punished. Moreover, as with ‘do-not-track’ markers, it continues the violation using a different mechanism.

    No flakin’ way.

    – Andrew Wolfe

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *