Q. My Android phone popped up a notification that “Physical Web pages are nearby.” What does that mean?
A. The plain language of that Android notification suggests that if you look in the right direction, you might spot a printout of a Web page taped to a wall. What Google’s operating system is actually saying: A nearby Bluetooth beacon is broadcasting a Web page’s address, and if you open that notification, the Chrome browser on your phone will display the page.
Why would you want to do that? At Google’s I/O developer conference two weeks ago, Rahul Roy-chowdhury, vice president of product management for Chrome, spelled out one such scenario in his mobile-Web talk: “Wouldn’t it be cool if you got on a bus and you could get the bus schedule available on your phone, instantly, right when you needed it?”
He continued that in London, you now can: Since March, passengers on some city buses have been able to check schedules and get estimated arrival times at upcoming stops this way.
Google is offering the same basic concept as Apple’s iBeacon, but more open. Where Apple’s implementation of Bluetooth beacons is confined to its own devices, Physical Web beacons can be picked up in both the Android and iOS versions of Chrome, although on iPhones and iPads you first have to add Chrome to the “Today” view of their notifications.
Physical Web notifications remain rare in practice outside of tech-centric venues. The three most recent places I’ve seen them: Google I/O, an open house hosted by the Future of Privacy Forum in Washington, and an Internet-of-Things conference in Paris.
Some companies, however, have begun adding this kind of notification to their own apps, on the assumption that somebody who’s gone to the trouble of installing them won’t mind the occasional nudge.
For example, Marriott now uses Bluetooth beacons to send deals to the phones and tablets of guests running that hotel firm’s app. And Major League Baseball has iBeacons set up in some ballparks to send offers to people running the iPhone version of the MLB at the Ballpark app. Because baseball went with Apple’s solution, the Android version of that app gets no such notifications.
Before anybody starts getting alarmed about phones getting badgered by Bluetooth beacons, it’s important to remember three other things about them.
One is that they should leave your battery alone. This feature, whether in Android or iOS, relies on the “Low Energy” version of Bluetooth, so you should not see a meaningful difference in battery life. (Older phone don’t support Bluetooth “LE” and so will be shut out.)
The other is that these beacons can’t see you as you. As Google’s developer documentation for Physical Web beacons spells out: “the broadcasting devices have no idea who is listening.”
Finally, if you don’t want to deal with this possibility at all, you can always shut off Bluetooth entirely.