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What the Physical Web Means to Beacons and the Enterprise

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Imagine walking up to a rental car and driving away in mere seconds--no time-consuming front counter interaction required--or a train station that pushes live schedule updates to waiting passengers. While these examples may not seem as sci-fi and futuristic as they would have a decade ago, the contemporary approach to enabling such interactions involves building custom software for each connected device. But is it practical to build a unique app to interact with each of these things? It is not --and the solution rests in the concept of openness.

Indeed, technology has been trending towards openness for some time now. Whether it's open standards, open source, or open connectivity--vendors insistent on platform-specific solutions often fall to the wayside. Consider the slow but sure demise of the desktop software application: building software-as-a-service (SaaS) offerings is commonplace these days and effectively skirts the classic Mac versus PC conundrum (this is, of course, just one of many benefits to delivering software via the cloud). The Web's open standards enable developers to avoid having to choose specific operating system platforms as development targets.

In the same vein, mobile app developers are wrangling with similar issues regarding the iOS and Android platforms. Because mobile browsers still have yet to offer consistent user experiences, targeting the mobile Web is still ways away from being an ideal solution -- though many mobile software vendors have already embraced this methodology. And with the recent emergence of the Internet of Things (IoT), the question of openness transcends even platform-specificity. The increasingly complex myriad of connected devices will at some point require a common protocol or platform to tie everything together.

Interaction on Demand

Google's new Physical Web initiative is addressing this issue with the development of open standards that allow for ubiquitous interactions with any smart devices, sans app.  Their goal is to build a set of protocols that enable one to interact with connected devices without having to install an intermediary piece of software. Though specific details regarding deployment and integration have yet to be released, some compelling use cases include app-less parking meters, vending machine payments, and physical signage that facilitate both advertising and purchasing -- what Google calls "interaction on demand." As the project lead Scott Jenson states, "everything should be just a tap away."

iBeacon and the Physical Web

If this value proposition sounds familiar, it may be due to Apple's recent release of iBeacon -- a hardware-based indoor positioning system that enables proximity interactions. For example, imagine walking past a movie billboard on the street and being presented with an option to buy tickets for it at the Cineplex around the corner or walking past a poster which allows for one-click donations for charitable events. Though these compelling use cases for iBeacon are echoed by the Physical Web, the reliance on native applications or Apple Passbook limits reach and adoption.

Enterprise Applications

Enterprise use cases for the Physical Web abound, with vast potential to streamline business processes and provide transformative experiences across the organization. For sales and marketing, the Physical Web can extend the reach of advertising and customer acquisition efforts to new levels. Deeper interactions with potential customers translate to shorter sales cycles and better lead qualification. For example, sales collateral and materials can be dynamically pushed to potential customers as they walk past signage, versus the traditional approach of driving traffic to the corporate website and having interested parties fill out cumbersome Web forms to download literature. On the logistics and inventory side, use cases include connected racks and storage units that push notifications to staff regarding low stock levels. As initiatives like the Physical Web progress, more applications will certainly come to light -- especially with leading platform developers such as Localz working with Google to build innovative and integrated enterprise solutions.