The Physical World Is Eating the Web

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Biting snake

I’ve always been a big fan of Marc Andreessen, and particularly his mantra that software is eating the world. We’re now seeing that play out in local commerce in lots of ways. The framework could even be flipped: The world is eating software.

The subject of innovation is increasingly atoms instead of bits. IoT blends the two, as do beacons. As I’ve suggested in the past, beacons could transform retail shopping and ad attribution — but thus far, adoption is disproportionate to the hype. That’s mostly due to opt-in friction.

Most beacon scenarios require users to jump through a set of compatibility hoops. That includes bluetooth activation and push-notification opt-in, not to mention actually downloading a compatible app (like a branded retailer app or aggregator like Shopkick).

Because most of these things are activated at the device-setting level, it requires about 26 taps to sync with a given beacon network. This is suffocating adoption, along with most retailers’ inability to verbalize a value tradeoff for entering that settings labyrinth.

But while all this is going on, Google is quietly working on an antidote: The physical web. To sidestep some of the opt-in friction, it positions the browser as the beacon interface instead of apps, and it transmits beacon content using good-old URLs.

The biggest difference is that this builds on a universal app that everyone already has: the browser. It’s not exempt from opt-in requirements, but it asks users to perform the waltz of finger taps just once — instead of with every new store app they have to download.

Beyond the app issue is the signal itself. Google is making URLs a vehicle for beacon-delivered content. Through its Eddystone open protocol, individual beacons can transmit a URL instead of compatibility-burdened data to launch in-app activity.

This not only lowers the user’s compatibility hurdle, but it makes things a lot simpler for businesses. Just as users don’t have to download an app, businesses don’t have to create one. This will be key for beacon adoption among tech-challenged (read: most) SMBs.

For example, SMB beacons could simply transmit a URL for a restaurant menu, YouTube video, weekly specials or anything they might already have online. And it doesn’t preclude apps; more advanced SMBs can deep link to apps like OpenTable or Foursquare.

But most interesting is the user experience, which could transform local search as we know it. Users will interact with the physical web by swiping down within the chrome mobile browser (other browsers coming) to see nearby beacon signals in order of proximity.

If you think about it, this reinvents “near me” searches by making it more about passive discovery than active search. Once there’s a density of signals, Google will likely offer search-centric ways to filter them and specify user intent.

The physical web will also notably boost local augmented reality (AR) applications. One of AR’s bottlenecks is having enough geotagged data and content to show up in the “iron man” interface. The physical web could begin to seed that content.

Another thing the physical web could do is bring more accuracy to the mess that is authenticating SMB location data for search. And the whole thing aligns thematically with xAd’s latest move to turn physical locations into biddable ad inventory for paid search.

Back to Google: the company’s motivation for fostering the physical web is pretty obvious. Almost everything Google does is about keeping people in the browser and slowing users’ migration to apps. The browser is where search lives and where Google makes most of its eleven-figure income.

In that light, the physical web can be seen as counterbalance to search volume declines. As I’ve theorized, Google needs to make up for that slowdown by pushing targeted content to users more predictively, during what it calls daily “micro-moments.”

Google Now has been the heir apparent to carry that strategy towards a more personalized, predictive and push-based web. But it’s becoming clear that another key piece of the puzzle will be a connected physical world — swallowing the web one beacon at a time.

Michael BolandMichael Boland is chief analyst and vice president of content at BIA/Kelsey. Previously, he was a tech journalist for Forbes, Red Herring, Business 2.0, and other outlets.

Mike Boland has been a tech & media analyst for the past two decades, specifically covering mobile, local, and emerging technologies. He has written for Street Fight since 2011. More can be seen at