Facebook Begins Mass Rollout of Free Bluetooth Business “Beacons”

Project is arguably Facebook’s biggest dedicate hardware effort to date, aims to realize goal of massive localized data mining.

Facebook, Inc. (FB) offered up something unexpected to punctuate a week in which Apple, Inc. (AAPL) seemed invariably destined to dominate the headlines. Facebook announced this week a foray into the embedded wireless advertising market, offering up free Bluetooth beacons for business owners.

For those in New York City this may all sound somewhat familiar as Facebook has been testing the roughly hockey puck sized devices at a handful of partner sites around the city under the “Place Tips” program.

The idea inject items pertaining to the beacon-outfitted business into the News Feed on a user’s smartphone Facebook app to jump to the business’s page, encouraging likes, offering information, and to check out tips from your friends about the business you’re visiting. The beacons will offer:

  • Prompts to like the business’s Page
  • Check in reminders
  • Recommendations from your friends
  • Posts from the business’s Page
  • For business owners who are invited, it’s a hard opportunity to pass by, given Facebook’s ubiquity and how active its over 1.3 billion global users are.

In an attempt to assuage users concerns over this new so-called “proximity-based advertising” feature, Facebook promises the beacons will be respectful of user privacy.  It writes in a FAQ page:

Using Bluetooth technology, these beacons send a one-way signal to the Facebook app on your customers’ phones to help us show them the right information about your business during their visit. They don’t collect any information from people or their phones or change the kind of location information Facebook receives.

Of course that doesn’t mean that Facebook can’t mine some of that data off your app (and it’s obvious it’s doing so to drive some of the features). So while the business may not be able to see you’re visiting via the beacon, Facebook can track which users are visiting what business, a hidden payoff for the site.

Some users will be inevitably irritated that the new feature is “polluting” their News Feed with data which may come off as an advertisement. However, the good news is that unlike Facebook’s recent publisher affiliate News Feed initiative, in this case you can silence the Place Tips by turning them off in the app settings.

For the business owner or administrator perspective, DashCrowd has a nice writeup, as an earlier deployer of the beacon in NYC.

After seeing the NYC program prove a success, Facebook is offering top traffic business Pages across the U.S. a chance to participate, although quantities of the free beacons will be limited. When an adminstrator or user affiliated with a top traffic page logs on the site, they’ll receive a post frozen atop their news feed encouraging them to enter their shipping info to get one of the beacons.

Assuming all goes well, Facebook, will slowly roll out the devices most active businesses on the site (in theory, at least), refining the physical hardware as it goes. To that end while Facebook is keeping relatively quiet about the program, it’s perhaps the company’s biggest real world hardware venture to date, eclipsing its nascent drone-based global internet coverage initiative and its flopped “Facebook phone” effort from back in 2013.

Users may be a bit concerned as the effort in some way appears to mirror the obtrusive targeted proximity advertising depicted in The Minority Report, a fictional science fiction thriller.

Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg says that’s not the case, though.  At an investor event attended by The Wall Street Journal in January she commented:

We want them [the Beacon News Feed ads] to blend in with the consumer experience.

For those wondering what lies under the hood of the Facebook beacons, for now they’re driven by Apple’s proprietary “iBeacon” protocol.  iBeacon was first unveiled at the Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) in 2013, and was first seen being dogfooded by Apple at its own stores.

iBeacon is built atop Bluetooth v4.0. Bluetooth is a power-efficient, short-range wireless communication standard — features that make it perfect for so-called “proximity-based marketing” applications such as this. The standard is maintained by the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG).  The group was responsible for publishing the finished Bluetooth v4.0 standard in 2009 and the Bluetooth v4.1 standard in 2013.

While the iBeacon wrapper protocol’s prefered target is low energy (LE) hardware, it is compatible with a wide range of generic and dedicated transmitters.  Apple phones aren’t the only devices that can understand the iBeacon protocol. Google Inc. (GOOG) has supported it in its mobile operating systems since the launch of Android 4.3 “Jelly Bean” and Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) added support for the protocol as part of the firmware package delivered last year in the “Lumia Cyan” update.

Apple’s proprietary protocol is expected to eventually be replaced by Bluetooth v4.2, an upcoming standard.  With others like Microsoft also expressing interest in Beacon related applications — commonly referred to as part of the so-called “internet of things” (IoT) (the collection of wireless-connected devices in the modern home and in public locations) — the Bluetooth SIG wants to make sure the hot application is better defined and more respectful of privacy.

This new standard will bring at least one crucial change in that it does not allow beacons to automatically sync up with nearby compatible devices. Rather, beacons can request to connect to a user’s device, but the user has the option of opting out and will not have their device connect until they approve of the connection.

While Facebook’s iBeacon-based solution could potentially be compatible with its apps on Android and Windows Phone, currently its own enabled as a feature within the Apple iPhone version of the mobile Facebook App.

There’s a bit of a tongue in-cheek aspect to the Beacon as there was an infamous website affiliate effort called Facebook Beacon, which raised major privacy concerns when it launched in 2007. The effort tracked users’ off-site activities using so-called “tracking pixels” and cookies. Targeted by a pair of class action lawsuits in Texas and California, Facebook opted to shutter the controversial program and establish a $9.5M USD privacy fund, as part of the settlement terms.

Now it has a new and controversial Beacon program, this time dealing with physical hardware.


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