iBeacon, No App? Breaking down the options

Amanda Darcey /

When we speak to Enterprises about the possibilities of beacon technology, we hear 3 questions again and again:

  1. Do I need an app?
  2. How do I get opt-in?
  3. What about privacy?

In this post, we are going to tackle that first one (but stay tuned for answers on the others!).

So, do you need an app?
Short answer: Yes.
Long answer: But… there are some things you can do without one

Why the app?

Let’s start with the technical explanation. Beacons are basically little radio transmitters that broadcast a bluetooth low energy (BLE) signal. Your smartphone is the receiver. If a radio is turned on but not programmed to the right station, all you hear is white noise. This is where the app comes in. Your app programs the receiver to the right station so that you are receiving the information you want to hear and, on the flip side, broadcasting to the audience that’s listening to your station. Without that, signals are being broadcast, but your device can’t hear them.

Others like to think of beacons like a Lighthouse. Just as a lighthouse emits a beam of light to tell ships that land is nearby, a beacon emits a signal that the app identifies and translates into an action (i.e. steer the ship here). Hence our name, Lighthouse!


While you generally need an app to listen for the signal, there are a few exceptions and workarounds to building a native app if you have the right use case and the right audience.

Passbook/ Passwallet

Apple’s Passbook and Google’s Passwallet offer an interesting alternative to a native app. Basically, since these are “utility” apps, standard on all iOS and available on most Android devices, they are already set-up to look for and work with iBeacons. They can work as a proxy for you, hearing the beacon and then using a 2D barcode (QR, Aztec or PDF417) embedded in the ‘pass’ to access the relevant information for a notification or campaign. Each pass can have up to 10 unique beacon identifiers meaning a single pass can display multiple messages depending on a user’s position in a store or venue.

Example pasees/tickets in Passbook for iOS

Example pasees/tickets in Passbook for iOS

However, important to note that there are limitations with using Passbook:

  1. The user must download the pass! There are 3 ways to distribute a pass: as an attachment to an email message, downloaded from a website, or through an app. Downloading a pass is generally viewed as less cumbersome and more flexible than an app but does not totally eliminate the action on the part of the consumer

  2. The look and feel is limited to the preconfigured Passbook / Passwallet templates, meaning the type of media and ability to customize is limited

  3. Notifications through passbook are ‘lock screen’ notifications, which means, a user must have the phone locked to receive the message

  4. Education around Passbook is still quite low and Passwallet is not yet on all Android devices. Reaching a large audience here is dependent on achieving penetration with these apps

Best for: anything that require a ticket (airline boarding passes, concerts, events, tourism experiences, etc.) and Retailer’s with popular loyalty cards

Beacon to beacon

Some beacon hardware providers are actually building “two-way iBeacons.” These are beacons that can talk to each other without the intervention of a smart device (and hence, no app!). Basically, how this works is one beacon has a limited memory that can pick up and store data from the sending beacon. You can later download that data off of the memory storing beacon to collect valuable event and location data.

Because beacon-to-beacon does not use an app, it is limited in what it can do. It works well for tracking of assets – for example, following herds of cattle as they move through the Argentine Pampas – but it lacks a robust receiver for content. If you need to send text notifications, task lists or multimedia content, beacon to beacon won’t work for you.

Best for: basic asset or employee tracking, data collection (facilities management, cleaning, security services, agriculture, logistics)

URLs/ Physical Web

Google is spearheading an experimental project you may have heard of called the Physical Web. Basically, this is an effort to extend properties of the web – specifically URLs – to physical things (vending machines, posters, rental cars, etc.) so that when a consumer walks up to them, they can receive information or offers without needing an app.

In this case, the user still needs a smart device, but rather than interacting with an app, they would interact with a web page. Physical objects would broadcast a HTTP URL (http or https) through a device called a UriBeacon, either built into the object or tagged onto it,and a user would be able to click into that URL and interact with the object via a mobile web page. Unlike the Passbook case, the customization possibilities are broad – basically, anything you can do on a mobile website you should be able to do here.

However, one of the core principles of the physical web initiative is no proactive notifications. Meaning that, users will only see a nearby list of objects or services when they ask. It actually works a lot like a web browser today:

  • A user requests a list of what is nearby
  • A ranked list of URLs appear
  • The user picks one
  • The URL is opened in a full screen browser window

Image from GitHub

Image from GitHub

Users can opt-in for notifications but it isn’t clear how selective they can be for certain brands uses. A firehouse of notifications that are irrelevant would likely just result in the user turning them off altogether.

Another challenge for brands looking to create a specific experience is that, with the physical web, you just get a list of all nearby objects or services that have enabled it. Since use is pretty low right now, that may not be a problem, but as it becomes more of a standard, there will be questions around how those get ranked and displayed. Also, this is a URL and a web-page. You can create specific URLs for the object, for example a ticket or paying at the vending machine, but the user experience will be much like interacting on a website.

…And right now, even the physical web is using an app! It is in early prototype phase and the brains behind this are hoping that one day soon, it’ll be built into all smart devices. However, until then, you still need an app.

So what does this all mean?

At the end of the day, to get the most out of your beacon program, you need to start with defining your objectives and a compelling use case. If you are managing a concert hall with multiple gigs or a tourist venue, like the Top of the Rock at Rockefeller Center or the Sydney Bridge Climb, Passbook may work just fine. If you just want to enable easy payment at a vending machine, maybe the Physical Web is the best route. It’s all about knowing your audience and responding appropriately.

That’s all for now. If you have any questions on this post or any others, contact us! And stay tuned, next week, we’re going to explain how Enterprises can get value from beacons, without facing the barriers of opt-in…

Amanda Darcey

I deeply believe that really great experiences come from simple, intuitive products and great teams delivering them. That is why I am so excited to drive the growth of the Lighthouse.io product in US.