When Apple announced iBeacon last June, just about every industry took notice. Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacons that can inform an iOS device of where the user is in physical space have almost limitless potential applications in retail, education, entertainment, you name it.
But while Apple seems to want the world to think that it's the only one doing things with BLE beacons, it hasn't been doing very much with the technology.
How fortunate, then, that there are companies like Estimote, which has been manufacturing BLE beacons and building the software to manage them for the better part of two years. Estimote bills itself as providing real-world context to mobile apps for both iOS and Android devices. And
while this specific technology is in its relative infancy, developers and enterprises can take begin taking advantage of it today.
There are only a dozen or so companies building Bluetooth beacons today, says Estimote business and operations leader Steve Cheney, not least because building hardware is hard. But where competitors, including Demo alum Shelfbucks, tend to aim on one vertical (retail, in Shelfbucks' space), Cheney sees Estimote as filling a similar niche as Twilio does in the voice app space -- primarily providing an API-driven platform and tools that make it a lot easier developers to build custom applications for any and every use case. (Although Estimote does do some direct sales.)
"It's just super simple to get started," Cheney says.
Cheney says that Estimote has solved most of the hard problems for developers, not least of which is actually manufacturing the beacons in large enough quantities that developers don't have to wait months to get their kit. This, Cheney says, is a problem in a software-focused industry that doesn't know how to scale a hardware business.
"Beacons are hard to make," Cheney says.
On the software side, Estimote's cloud-based platform enables for the centralized management of beacons, adding a crucial security layer and API access as well. From that main point of management, customers can keep the content linked with each beacon current.
And what kind of content is that? Cheney says that Estimote customers have come up with all kinds of nifty pilots, proof-of-concepts, and even a few hush-hush real-world deployments across a variety of verticals.
One idea was placing beacons into schools so that students only have access to the appropriate apps for the classroom they're sitting in.
Another concept is to place beacons in office meeting rooms, such that you can tell if a room is occupied and by whom from your phone before you even get up from your desk. An interesting side-effect is that you then start collecting all kinds of data on space utilization, which opens up the possibility of analytics that can operational efficiency at the same time you make life just a little bit easier for the office workers.
So while Apple drags its heels, Cheney says that Estimote is riding iBeacon anticipation to growth: Since the announcement of iBeacon last June, the Estimote team has grown from 5 to 40.
Cheney says that this growth points to the need for solutions that only BLE can provide: GPS is too inaccurate at short range and draws too much power; NFC needs you to be close. But when it comes to empowering developers to provide the right information to a smartphone at the right time, based entirely on your physical presence, BLE is just right.
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