Beacons take baby steps into businesses

Intriguing notions are emerging on how to use the simple Bluetooth location devices for smarter work processes.

By Galen Gruman
Aug. 31, 2016

There were dozens of such wayfinding pilot projects in 2013 and 2014, though there's little evidence of them today. One reason may be that you need an app to interact with the beacons, and people will install and run only so many apps before resorting to good old maps, signage, and asking people for directions.

That explains why airlines and airports have pivoted from using beacons for passenger directions to testing them for employee use, such as to count passengers (anonymously) in a waiting area to identify where staff might need to be routed, then match staff location (also via beacons) to redeploy them as needed.

The challenges of beacon adoption in the enterprise

One challenge for enterprise adoption of beacons is that they require a smartphone and usually an app. Some courts have ruled that if you require people to carry a smartphone for business use, you need to pay for part of the monthly costs of the smartphone plan. That can get expensive fast.

Or maybe not. You don't need a data plan to use a beacon -- Wi-Fi does the trick of connecting the required apps to the internet. And it's free (for the user) at an office, notes Tony Kush, vice president of R&D for mobile technologies at VMware. With most working adults now carrying a smartphone, it may be reasonable to expect all employees to have one, even if only for use as essentially an employee badge. You could thus restrict data-plan reimbursement to employees who need to use the smartphones outside the office, he suggests. That's an interesting idea, though it probably should be explained delicately to your workforce.

Still, you need to have the apps installed and running on all users' devices, which requires a distribution method of some sort, whether an enterprise app store or essentially harnessing embarrassment and peer pressure to motivate people into downloading them from a public app store.

But you could flip the deployment around, suggests Tim Myers, product manager at ReadyTalk. Beacons could be embedded in employee badges or carried around as badges; a tablet in a room would detect which beacons have entered and thus know who has come in. (Computers don't currently support the iBeacons or Eddystone technologies, so they can't be that intelligent hub device. Only mobile devices can do that today.)

As a result, employees no longer need to have specific apps running on their smartphones. And you don't have to worry about people who still have flip phones or whose Bluetooth is off or not working right. Although the typical model is for the beacon to be fixed and the intelligence (the network-connected app) to be portable, that doesn't have to be the case.

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