How Cisco’s Meraki Became the Largest Vendor of Bluetooth Beacon Gateways
Imagine what it would feel like if you bought a car two years ago and were then told that there was a free software upgrade that enabled it to become self-driving.
Half a million of the installed base of Wi-Fi routers from Cisco’s very successful Meraki division have a Bluetooth radio embedded alongside the Wi-Fi radio. Meraki started including Bluetooth radios in their routers two years ago. The full functionality of this extra radio is something that many people may not have considered when they made their purchasing decision. These products now have the indoor location equivalent of the self-driving car upgrade.
While Meraki’s routers have long had the ability to broadcast iBeacon packets, on October the 5th they released a software upgrade which enables API access to these radios, activating a major new feature. Now customers can use their Wi-Fi access points to monitor beacons from third party vendors such as Estimote, Gimbal and Kontakt.io. For retailers and enterprises wanting to check on the health of beacons deployed across their stores or other facilities, they can now use this existing connected infrastructure to monitor the last time these beacons were seen or moved.
“Fleet management” is a huge deal as a gating factor for national deployments of beacons and can account for a larger part of the cost than the capital cost of the beacons themselves, but there is even more functionality that can now be “turned on.” As well as monitoring the presence of beacons for management purposes, Meraki’s API enables measurement of proximity and location of the Bluetooth beacons in a venue. With this functionality, heatmap generation and path analysis are possible for objects that have Bluetooth radios attached. Bluetooth beacons are ideal for this as they can be programmed in very specific ways, but this functionality also extends to monitoring wearable devices such as Fitbits and smartwatches.
While smartphones don’t generally broadcast a trackable Bluetooth signal, retail staff may be issued ID-style Bluetooth-enabled cards to track their movement. This can be handy if you want to discount their behavior from the heatmaps generated from camera systems. If we see a hotspot by a particular display, we probably want to understand if that activity comes from shoppers considering a purchase or staff tidying the display. Detecting if brands are surreptitiously adding beacons to their shelf displays, bypassing the store’s own analytics, is also a useful function.
Where this monitoring really comes into its own is in enterprise asset tracking applications. Tracing the location of equipment, staff and patients in healthcare is a growing application that had required its own set of gateway products to relay the presence of these assets. Now hospitals can use their existing Wi-Fi hardware to track Bluetooth beacons to increase the service to their patients and optimize their operations.
Wi-Fi has been spreading to the warehouse and manufacturing floors in factories to connect networked barcode scanners used for product picking. Now the same access points used to establish connectivity can be used to detect the movement of staff, pallets, tools and equipment for safety compliance, food traceability and better inventory management.
Adding beacons to workers and pallets is one thing, but setting up a system of proprietary Bluetooth gateways to monitor them is at least as much work. If the Wi-Fi infrastructure can do double duty, then that’s a huge boost to the viability for many new projects. The fact that this critical monitoring infrastructure doesn’t require another untested vendor helps too.
Free upgrade, great functionality, trusted vendor, management functions integrated with your existing systems … end of story, right? Not quite. This is Version One of Meraki’s Bluetooth Gateway API and there are a few other issues to consider.
Today’s beacon functionality covers iBeacon only. We might assume that Google’s Eddystone (URL, UID and EID) protocols may be supported in the future, but that’s not on offer today.
Updates and configuration of the beacons being monitored are not supported. Updates will either require deep integration with beacon vendors that may or may not necessarily want to support this. Another option for Meraki would be support Google Eddystone’s GATT standard for beacon management. Until then, beacon updates could be done over the air via smartphone devices, either those of the staff or customers.
Another factor to consider is the level of accuracy required. For higher levels of precision, an increase in density of gateways would be required. If those gateways are Wi-Fi routers, then this could be expensive. It would be nice to supplement the Wi-Fi routers with a smaller lower cost gateway device, such as those from the beacon vendors that retail for $100 or less. That option doesn’t exist today.
That said, it’s not good manners to complain about a gift, which arguably this upgrade is. The positive impact on the health of the “Beacosystem” could be significant. Suddenly hundreds of thousands of Bluetooth gateways that we didn’t know we had have appeared. Beacon sightings from those that have been enabled are already in the tens of millions per week. The thorny problem of fleet management just got a lot more solvable and the cost of projects went down. Call it an early Christmas present and look forward to a New Year with many more indoor location applications.
Stephen Statler is the CEO of SCL, providing consulting and systems integration services for companies using the power of location and proximity to engage their customers and optimize their business. Stephen is an Advisory Board Member of a number of companies pioneering in the application of proximity technology including: Beaconix, Rover Labs and PassJoy. Details about Steve’s book, “Beacon Technologies: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Beacosystem” can be found at www.hhgb.us