In an ideal world, you’d never load an app on your phone. Instead, whenever you pulled it out of your pocket, it would already have loaded whatever you were looking for.
Last week, Google took a small but meaningful step toward that future. It launched a feature called Nearby for Android. Nearby essentially allows places you’re physically nearby to send you notifications through Bluetooth "beacons."
So when you walk into a CVS, you’ll receive a link to open (or download) its app, so you could check specials or print photos from your phone. When you wait at the gate of a United flight, the airline will point you to the free shows and movies you can watch while you wait for your plane. Similarly, historic landmarks around the campus of Notre Dame will actually contact your phone to teach you more about themselves. Around Oracle arena, fans will be notified of Warriors highlights they can watch on their screens.
In each of these cases, you'll see a notification on your screen—just like a text message. Tap, and it can deep-link you into a specific part of an app, or it can point you to a URL on the web. Or, if you’re not interested, you can swipe left to dismiss and move on with your life. But though it may sound innocuous, Nearby shows us how Google, and Apple with its similar iBeacon devices, are attempting to integrate mobile interfaces with the physical world.
Building the perfect, contextually understanding mobile software is hard. Google’s been trying for a long time, most notably with Google Now, which tracked your location to serve up all sorts of information, like future meetings, commutes, and directions to nearby restaurants, all predictive of what you might need to see when you glance at your screen.
Sometimes Now feels prescient; you’ll find yourself wondering how Google knew you were about to go to the gym on a random Tuesday. Other times, it’s downright idiotic; once, waiting for a plane at the airport around lunchtime, Now suggested I drive 40 miles to an Arby’s. I don't even know the last time I ate at an Arby's, but it probably predated me even owning a smartphone.
But Nearby should be inherently relevant in a way that Now isn’t, because it's geo-activated: You'll be literally on the scene of the notification when you get it. And about that notification! Not a bad way to convey bits of information, right? We’re used to notifications. We don’t have to open notifications. And we know how to ignore notifications (not that I was ghosting last weekend, I swear). Because it's local, and because the UX is instantly understandable, Nearby should be a more focused solution to the problem Now tried to tackle.
But as tempting as contextual notifications may seem, Nearby isn’t a sure hit. For one thing, partner companies need to install Bluetooth beacons to send these notifications. Beacons can have a range up to a few hundred feet, and they are by no means expensive—the cash in your pocket could pick up some lower-end models. But retailers, restaurants, and museums must physically implement them at the infrastructure level, which presents an inherent challenge to adoption.
Secondly, Google’s current UX implementation of Nearby doesn’t seem scalable. The company has just five launch partners. What happens if literally every business and billboard starts knocking on the door of your phone indiscriminately? We’d be inundated with noise. "Nearby is still in its very early days, and we're always looking at ways to explore giving users more control based on real-world usage patterns," a spokesperson says to that point. It's easy to imagine a world where we have to install ad blockers to stop some or all of these notifications—or, to everyone's detriment, we just opt out from seeing them altogether (which Google allows you to do today).
Fair enough. But then there's the big hurdle: Apple launched a similar technology three years ago—and have you even noticed, iPhone user? Once or twice, maybe? The company's so-called iBeacon technology, which relies on similar Bluetooth pucks be installed at places like retail stores to ping your phone with deals, have failed to catch on. The best use of an iBeacon I’ve experienced is through Apple’s Passbook: arriving at an airport and having my ticket waiting for me in line. That’s the sort of contextual magic we all want with apps.
Otherwise, I’ve forgotten the technology is even in my phone. That may be by design: Apple has implemented it in a fairly discreet way. iBeacons can put messages on your lock screen. They don’t appear to push out more like a text message as Google’s do. In this sense, Google may be pursuing beacons, as formal notifications, to be a touch more interruptive to your day.
Maybe the real solution to a world overflowing with information, however, is to carefully limit it. Google has figured out how to do that pretty well already with the web. Consider how successfully Google Search leverages AI to narrow down countless websites to a few very specific ones to answer a very specific query. Swap out physical places for virtual URLs, and why couldn't a very similar logic apply with Nearby?
As it happens, Google's beacon tech actually works a lot more like the web than Apple's does. Without getting too technical, Apple’s iBeacons in their current state don’t send a phone much in terms of real information. The iBeacon basically sends an extremely short identifying ping to your phone: "Hey, my name is X!" But it's up to the developers of apps to figure out how to turn that message into something useful inside their system. "X" might mean O’Hare Airport, and "Y" might identify LaGuardia, but the actual interaction with a user is still programming the app developer need to do. In contrast, Google’s implementation sends a full piece of information: "Hey, my name is X, and here’s a URL you can open!" It’s a small difference, but it means Google’s beacon technology can send a phone information similar to the way a QR code is scanned today. And its worldwide web of URL-based beacons doesn't look much different than the World Wide Web itself.
With Google putting Android’s weight behind the technology, the promise of beacons feels brighter. But it doesn’t change the fact that, in the best-case scenario of current technology, everyone adopts beacons—and all of us smartphone users are inundated with notifications. In this regard, Nearby does indeed sound like it’s "in its very early days," and will still need intelligence—all that AI that Google is so good at—to highlight not just the endless possibilities of the world as we walk by them, but the opportunities that matter most to each of us.