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Docked Blog

The Second Age of Mobile

2007 - 2013 was the first age of mobile.

Adoption was faster than anything that had came before it. Apps, an entirely new medium, have been downloaded more than 100 billion times in just five years. 100 Billion! Entire regions of the emerging world have skipped the PC for the smartphone. The first golden age of smartphones largely took advantage of the mobility, touchscreen, GPS, and camera.

But while mobile device adoption continues to grow throughout the world, a second act is starting to emerge; its potential orders of magnitude larger than the first.

A brief look at Personal Computer history

On January 9th, 2001 at the Macworld keynote address, Steve Jobs introduced the ‘digital hub’. At the time, it was widely considered that the PC was ‘good enough’, or that many of the largest advances in computing were in the past. Steve, of course, disagreed, pointing to the proliferation of digital devices in our life. He argued that the Mac would help centrally manage these different accessories. Take a look:

 

 

Specifically he calls out 5 key areas in which the PC was well positioned to be the hub:

  • Run Complex applications
  • Big Screen
  • Large, inexpensive storage
  • Internet capability
  • Burn Disks

Fast forward to today

Now, in 2013, the PC is no longer the hub it once was. As we enter deeper into the Post-PC period, the tasks that only a PC can solve are getting smaller and smaller.

The smartphone is the new ‘digital hub’. It’s the center of our communication, our media, and our sharing activity. And just like the PC, the smartphone will have several discrete stages. 

This is the second age - the device as central manager for ‘pervasive computing’ applications. Applications like in-car experiences, syncing with speakers and headsets, and unlocking doors. Apps that turn your smartphone into a ‘remote control' like Uber or Grubhub.

But those are just the beginning. Sensors, low in cost and power requirements, will become embedded into our environment, enabling pervasive computing across physical environments. Once this deployment occurs, we’ll realize that the smartphone is only the remote control, we have yet to see the main attraction.  

The smartphone is only the remote control, we have yet to see the main attraction. 

Take a look at 5 reasons above, the reasons why the PC was well suited as the digital hub. Those reasons are exactly the same reasons that create a digital hub today (well, except for burning disks), but the scale has been shifted one unit smaller. So, where in 2001, the PC had the big screen, today, it’s the smartphone that has the screen, the internet connection and the larger CPU and storage capabilities.

The next few years

In hindsight the pundits were wrong, internet activity from 2001 through 2007 dwarfed almost all activity from the previous decade. And just as the internet drove un-imaginable innovation in the PC market, the coming pervasive computing environment will drive even more in the coming years.

We are in the very beginning of the 2nd golden age. Enabled by mass adoption of the smartphone, near field communications maturing and dropping prices of low-powered sensors, we are now ready for large-scale deployments of computing across our physical environment. And with this pervasive computing, the smartphone will reign as our next digital hub.

Sep 9, 2013
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PayPal Beacon: PayPal goes all in with Bluetooth Low Energy

Today, Sept 9 2013, just a day before Apple is poised to release iOS 7, PayPal introduced Beacon: A Bluetooth Low Energy device powering hands-free payments and dramatically improved in-store digital experiences.

A Huge Bet

Though often derided by the tech press, PayPal has been working on physical payment experiences for a long time. Starting with POS integration, where a consumer entered their PayPal credentials, the system was a bit too slow and clunky to gain mass adoption. Next releasing PayPal Here, PayPal swiveled to towards the micro-merchant market, competing directly with Square. While both Here and Square are making strides in the micro-merchant market, driving those products upmarket has been met with many challenges.

With PayPal Beacon, PayPal has built a truly amazing experience.  It is the first large scale digital payment experience that can be deployed cost-effectively into Fortune 500 retailers.

And it’s all possible because of Bluetooth Low Energy. The BLE beacon, with ranges of 50-100 meters in store, means even the largest retailers will only need to install a few beacons per store. Compared with NFC, which needs  installations at each POS, It’s both more cost effective and provides more inshore flexibility. Additionally, the larger range of BLE ensures other in-store experiences can be built on top of Beacon, both by PayPal and 3rd party developers on the Beacon API’s.

POS Integration built in

Unlike many start-ups, PayPal smartly decided years ago to integrate with the existing leaders in the POS market. Partnerships with VeriFone Systems, NCR, Equinox, Micros, and Ingenico have quietly been put in place the last few years.

Now, Paypal has the necessary coverage to enable merchants of all shapes and sizes to quickly integrate PayPal Beacon with their existing systems. Compared with migrating to entirely new POS systems, PayPal has focused on practical ease-of-installation and still released an incredibly innovate product.

Beautiful design

With help from legendary designer Yves Behar, the device is compact and beautiful. But, it’s also as functional as good-looking. By simply plugging Beacon into a wall outlet or computer, Beacon connects and syncs with the internet, and the BLE drains less smartphone battery than similar solutions using GPS geo-fences. Battery changes not required.

 

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Learning quickly

It’s very clear that PayPal is pushing to be the comprehensive in-store digital experience.  They made great strides in a very short period of time. The focus on speed and innovation by David Marcus, PayPal’s CEO, is clearly paying dividends. With Beacon, PayPal has offered users and merchants an empirically driven, simple digital payment experience, plus a robust platform to enable developers building in-store experiences. This is another huge vote for Bluetooth Low Energy, the first near range protocol that’s production ready and connects with a wide enough range of smartphones. 

 

https://www.paypal.com/webapps/mpp/beacon

Sep 9, 2013
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General Computing in Sensor Environments

The ‘Internet of Things’ is certainly an emerging buzzword these days. The IoT ranges from sports & activity tracking, to the consumers home, all the way to the ‘Industrial Internet’ as GE puts it. And while many applications are already deployed, the ecosystem is still in early days. Today we are at the point of single-use hardware and sensors, using varied, sometimes proprietary standards and protocols. 

We’ve seen this before. When the handheld electronics market emerged, there was an array of single-use hardware devices. The cellphone, PDA, iPod, GPS, portable gaming device and digital camera are all examples. And then something happened; the smartphone came out. And while it was called a ‘smartphone’, it was more accurately the first general purpose computer that we carried around in our pockets. This computer quickly wiped out vast industries that were built upon the niche hardware that came before it. Take a look at the stock prices of Garmin, Nintendo, Nokia, Palm, or Kodak to get a clear picture of how the value chain was disrupted.

We are at a similar point in time for the low-cost, low-power sensor market. There is a wide array of competing standards and protocols, all doing one or two things well. Most require specialized hardware to interact with, such as the RFID ‘interrogator’, a device that reads data from RFID tags. And while we are passing electronic signals back and forth, we have not yet reached the stage of general computing.

What is General Computing?

There is no one definition of General Computing. However, historically there have been a few clear signs when computing models have moved from specialized niches to general application.

  • A stack is established, with multiple layers of software communicating  but independent of each other (ie, the internet, or modern operating systems)
  • Standards and Protocols are agreed upon, and hit some level of critical mass
  • Robust software development tools and API’s make building at each layer of the stack possible
  • Platforms emerge, enabling 3rd parties to innovate and build varied use cases

How do we enable general computing for low-power, low-cost sensors?

We must look to the above signals to generate progress towards general computing. Specifically, for IoT to thrive, we must be able to install wireless, large scale networks of heterogeneous devices. The sensors must able to communicate directly with more full featured computers, while still allowing for software tools, APIs and platforms to be built. Additionally, because of the large scale installations, power, cost and size requirements must accommodate a wide range of use cases.

These sensors must fit the following requirements:

  • Low cost, to enable broad scale installation
  • Wirelessly networked with ranges accommodating the use-case
  • Low power requirements, ensuring maintenance and battery costs don’t overwhelm the total cost
  • Small physical size, enabling flexible installation
  • Robustness of data transfer, avoiding extra power to succeed and making complex installations easier.
  • Interface directly with general purpose computers 
  • Enable full software development, API’s and platforms, either directly or through connected devices (i.e., Smartphones) 

With all that in mind, let us go through a quick technical overview of how Bluetooth Low Energy compares to other similar wireless protocols, and see why it may be the best general choice available.

ZigBee

ZigBee, a cousin of WiFi, descends from the IEE802 standard. Introduced in 2002, it has enjoyed the support of companies like Panasonic, Samsung and Sony. It enjoys a practical range of ~100 meters, enabling full coverage of a house, and with the ability to mesh nodes together, coverage of larger areas as well. Many times ZigBee is used as a backbone technology, syncing & controlling many different nodes.

Unfortunately, ZigBee lacks in a few areas. Most importantly, where remote controls and other proprietary hardware have implemented ZigBee, smartphone’s have not; thus requiring some intermediate standard (wifi/ethernet) to transmit data to the phone. Additionally, the lack of signal robustness and higher power requirements, make ZigBee more costly and error prone in complex enterprise environments.

NFC

NFC (near field communication) has always enjoyed the majority of discussion regarding contactless transactions or ‘Personal Area Networks’. And while the promise of NFC in the US has always been great, the results have not. A decade of false starts, especially relating to payment systems, have rendered industry suspicious and fatigued.

NFC suffers a few disadvantages as compared to BLE. First, the max range of NFC is on the order of 5-10 cm, requiring immediate proximity to the sensor. Compare that with 50-100 meters for BLE, and you get a much larger set of use-cases. Second, peak power consumption is higher for active NFC tags than BLE, requiring more power than the commonly used watch battery (CR2032) can provide. Passive NFC tags, while requiring no battery, demand manual instigation before passing data, thus closing many desired use-cases. However, because of the immediate range and robust Android support, some use cases may be better tailored for NFC now and into the future; especially when a literal tap is preferred.

Finally, NFC has been slowed by the lack of iOS support. Market fragmentation, especially in highest end segments, must be addressed before full scale installations occur.

RFID

A comparison between RFID and BLE is actually a bit of a misnomer. While RFID is generally defined as a wireless transfer of data using radio frequencies, it’s most closely associated with identifying and tracking tags targeted at high-volume, low-cost tag applications. RFID, similar to NFC, supports both active and passive tags.  Active tags are powered, boosting the range to ~100 meters and providing more robust signals. Passive tags are not powered, requiring an ‘interrogator’ to pass power to the tag. Passive tags are extremely cheap and require little maintenance, making them particularly successful in proprietary industrial installations.

Recently, the definition of RFID has started to expand, potentially encompassing BLE as well. Seeing BLE as a subset of RFID makes a lot of sense especially when consumers and consumer mobile devices are involved. As the RFID journal states:

"The combination of functionality, low cost and pervasive adoption will make BLE handsets an attractive option for many monitoring systems that are currently the target for RFID technologies"

RFID tags are cheap to install and good at what they do, but they also serve as an example of specialized hardware; the tools, platforms and device adoption never materialized.

In Summary

Many industries move from single-use niche hardware and standards to a general computing model, where a range of hardware, software and platforms can flourish. The convergence of mass scale smartphone adoption with the right hardware built in, combined with lowering cost and power requirements of BLE sensors, will enable the start of a coherent, addressable general purpose network. It’ll be fun to watch what gets built.

Next up: We’ll talk in more detail about how smartphones interact with BLE devices, and some interesting applications we’ve already seen built.

Sep 6, 2013
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Bluetooth LE: the new king is not like the old king

For the past several years, Bluetooth Low Energy  technology has very quietly been gaining momentum. After checking off many of the requirements needed for mass adoption, BLE is looking like the most credible contender for enabling pervasive computing across our entire physical environment. The ramifications are enormous.  

Bluetooth? We already know Bluetooth.

You’re right, you do. Bluetooth Classic, that is. Invented by Ericsson in 1994, BC was first popularized by hands-free headsets. Car kits, digital camera, keyboard and mouse integration followed shortly after. Then medical devices, speakers and more started using Bluetooth Classic. Today, Bluetooth adoption is continuing to rise - cumulative Bluetooth products passed 2.5 billion shipments this year.

But BLE attempts to solve a slightly different problem. Where Bluetooth Classic is great for paired devices that stay connected for large periods of time, have relatively high power requirements, and pass larger amounts of data back and forth (high throughput), BLE is much better suited for low power, transient connections. While Bluetooth classic’s pairing process is manual, and requires manual intervention, BLE enables zero-configuration pairing, allowing users to seamlessly interact with BLE sensors wherever they may be.

The unknown heir

Maybe it’s because BLE is often confused with Classic Bluetooth, or maybe it’s because NFC has enjoyed the media limelight, but BLE has largely been ignored by developers, media and industry. It’s been only recently that BLE’s capabilities have started to be put to use.

Tile, DashTod and others are building wondrously clever applications on top of BLE. These developers have realized that BLE is the best general choice for building ‘Sensor apps’.

Specifically, BLE offers:

  • Range of 50-100 meters
  • Cost effective and long-running battery requirements
  • Critical mass of smartphone compatibility
  • Transparent device pairing

BLE offers the ability to build a unique class of applications. Applications that can communicate locally with other devices, apps that micro-location, or proximity sensing. Combined with a smartphone, or another more full featured computer, advanced intelligence and networking can be built into the mesh of sensors.

Apple’s quiet march

While others have struggling with NFC, Apple has been patiently marshaling a vast amount of resources into the BLE environment. First, with barely a word, and certainly no marketing campaign like we’ve seen with Siri, included Bluetooth LE as part of the integrated Wifi chipset starting with iPhone 4S and iPad 3. Now, over 2 years later, over 90% of running iOS devices have BLE baked in. The hardware has reached mass deployment and fragmentation issues have ceased.

Next, Apple’s recent acquisitions of Authentic and Passif give them deep expertise and and a wide array of patents in two areas relevant to BLE. The fingerprint scanner by Authentic, while enabling many key benefits, provides the most critical function of authenticating transactions passed over BLE (see this excellent post by Brian Roemmele). Second, Passif, invented a novel form of of energy harvesting, where a BLE sensor is powered not by a battery, but by ambient energy emitted from other wireless signals.

Finally, iOS 7 is coming next week. The new OS looks different - it’s bright, with parallax and animations included. And while the press has focused on the cosmetic changes, Apple’s slight of hand has been masterful.

Instead, pay attention to iBeacons - a simple, painless profile for BLE devices. While relatively simple, enabling ‘only’ micro-range proximity sensing, make no mistake on how powerful this is. With iBeacons, Apple is releasing a standard and a set of API’s - the two critical components on which all new platforms are built. This platform will let people interact and control their environment to an extant never before possible - the ultimate tool and the smartphone will truly become the remote control for your world. Massive change is going to occur, in health care, retail, transportation, payments, shipping, the home and more, we can only hope to do it in a smart and thoughtful manner.

What the smartphone did for mobile computing, sensors will do for ‘pervasive computing’.

Next up: We’ll talk about how BLE compares to other near field protocols, what challenges await those using BLE & iBeacons, how our privacy will be impacted and some of the problems that BLE can solve. Follow along here.

Sep 6, 2013
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