Location services have become a hot topic in the WiFi space, and the recent advent of proximity beacons upped the ante in precision device location. At the same time, beacons are sort of strange devices, installed one at a time with no real central management. Aerohive Networks is changing that, and the implications are pretty big.
For the uninitiated, beacons are small, frequently battery-powered Bluetooth transmitters used to trigger any number of actions on portable devices with compatible apps installed. Near a beacon in the shoe aisle? Don’t be surprised to see a coupon pop up on your smartphone for the very pair you are about to look at, or an out-of stock-notification with a link to online ordering. Proximity beacons set interactive wheels in motion.
While beacons are typically associated with retail wireless environments, the surface is just starting to be scratched for how they’re likely to be used as the technology evolves. And though iBeacon tends to be used as a generic name for all such devices, based on Apple's iBeacon technology for iOS devices, Android-compatible beacons are called AltBeacons, based on a proposed standard from beacon-system vendor Radius Networks.
Aerohive has targeted the retail market with its Personalized Engagement Platform, and though several competitors have also embarked on formal customer engagement and retail analytics initiatives, it's taken the concept up a significant notch. A new partnership with Radius Networks provides Aerohive with the first centrally managed beacon capability in an increasingly competitive market.
Leveraging the USB port in most of its late-generation access points, Aerohive now accommodates iBeacon and AltBeacon devices from Radius Networks. This simple coupling of enterprise access point and low-cost beacon yields a number of benefits. Where other beacons are powered from batteries, the USB format means no more changing of button cells.
For Aerohive WiFi environments that were already designed for location services, the new beacon-hosting model provides much better accuracy in busy retail environments, getting within inches when deployed right. The old method of beacon deployment was simply to place them where you could, often under a shelf. Aerohive gets them above the floor clutter, and if you know where the AP is, you know where the beacon is for management via free apps from Radius. Future plans call for tighter integration between Aerohive’s Hive Manager platform and the beacons themselves.
The notion of adding hardware options to WiFi access points isn’t new. Cisco offers add-on modules for its flagship enterprise APs for wireless intrusion prevention, mobile network extension, and additional WiFi radios. But these tend to be pricey, and not widely adopted. Motorola and others have APs that can use 3G or 4G modems for alternative network backhaul, but again, it’s not all that common of a use case.
Aerohive’s new USB beacon model is likely to be far more popular than any other AP add-on, and at under $30 apiece, Radius Networks’ beacons are likely to find favor pretty quickly with Aerohive customers that are serious about using WiFi for enhanced customer engagement in retail spaces for new revenue streams.
Beyond targeting and tracking shoppers, the precision afforded by short-range Bluetooth Beacons has applicability in hospital, education, and tourism environments. For example, you could be wandering down a hallway and receive an alert exactly when you need to turn to get to the cafeteria, or in a museum, you could receive an exhibit-related notification. Many of us in the WiFi industry are just getting started with all that location services provide, from indoor mapping and routing to location-triggered alerts and notifications.
As is the case in the bigger world of navigation and mapping, accuracy and ease of use are keys to user satisfaction and market share. Now that deploying beacons is no more difficult than deploying access points for Aerohive customers, it’s a good bet that competing WiFi vendors will follow suit in the near future.
Want to learn more from Lee? Attend his session, The Yin and Yang of Cloud-Managed WiFi, at Interop New York. Register now for Interop, Sept 29 to Oct. 3 in New York City.