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Google’s ‘Physical Web’ loses the Chrome browser
The company's vision of beacons broadcasting URLs to its browser bites the dust, but URLs into Android’s Nearby remains.
A browser-based Physical Web has evaporated.
The Physical Web was a Google trial where beacons broadcast their URLs to the Chrome browser.
The main advantage over regular beacons — like Apple’s iBeacon — was that you didn’t need a supporting mobile app in order to see beacon-based local information.
Instead, you could see website links from beacons supporting Google’s Eddystone URL protocol right in the Chrome browser. Introduced in 2014 by Google, the expressed concept was: “Walk up and use anything.” As the company noted on a web page with that heading:
“Walk up and interact with any object — a parking meter, a toy, a poster — or location — a bus stop, a museum, a store — without installing an app first. Interactions are only a tap away. See web pages associated with the space around you. Choose the page most useful to you.
But Google has pulled part of the plug on that vision. The Physical Web’s Twitter account is no longer active, and the project lead, Scott Jensen, is reportedly working on another Google team.
At the end of last month, Google software developer Michal Mocny posted an “Update on Physical Web features in Chrome” in a Google Group discussion about Physical Web:
Over the last few years, Physical Web features have piecewise graduated out of our small project within Chrome and into Eddystone, Nearby & Notifications, and the Beacon platform. With the majority of our original work now built into the Android platform, it’s now time to clean up a few remaining Physical Web features from Chrome:
- Physical Web scanning will no longer be included in the revamped iOS Widget in M62.
- We will be disabling our omnibox experiments in Chrome for Android.
- We will remove remaining Physical Web settings and diagnostics pages from Chrome.
Nearby Notifications is an OS-level functionality in Android Lollipop and later that will continue to show URLs from beacons supporting Eddystone URL, plus the URLs can be seen in supporting apps.
Following Mocny’s post, BKON Connect CEO Richard Graves posted the following in the same group. His Nashville-based proximity tech company had developed a dashboard and other tech to support Chrome-based Eddystone URLs:
To me the real issue is that Nearby is not an implementation of the Physical Web. In 2014, with the catchphrase “walk up and using anything,” Google introduced the Physical Web as an assistive utility. Under their original concept, beacons would serve as gateways to the mobile internet that would speed and simplify a multitude of tasks, thus delivering convenience and enhancing productivity for mobile users.
As implemented in Android [in Nearby Notifications], the Physical Web has value, but only as an ad channel.
With Google curating the content in Nearby, it is unworkable to put bus schedules, parking meter access, or movie trailers on beacons (the original three examples). If a user cannot deterministically control getting access to a nearby parking meter, then such content will not be deployed.
Graves’ company — which has recently rebranded as Phy — is now focusing on QR codes and Near-Field Communication (NFC) as ways to provide URLs in the real world.
“Beacons wirelessly broadcast URLs,” Graves told me via email. “QR codes do so visually and NFC tags tactilely. Other than the input modality, there is no difference between them. Further, QR and NFC do a better job of letting users choose when and what information they want.”
Both QR codes and NFC also transmit a URL to a passerby, QR after a user has snapped an image of the visual code with the mobile device’s camera and NFC by tapping your phone or having your phone within two centimeters of a NFC reader.
Graves believes that Google’s curation of URLs to Nearby Notifications greatly limits its utility, but that QR codes and NFC tag are good alternatives for offering URLs in the physical world.
Instead of standing on a street full of restaurants, for instance, and seeing URLs to the menus of each in your Chrome browser, you can walk up to the door of each, scan a QR and see a menu for each. It’s on demand instead of broadcast, where you choose by walking up to the establishment or parking meter.
Graves pointed out that QR codes are experiencing a boom, with WeChat’s success in using them for mobile commerce plus the integration of QR-reading software into Apple and Samsung devices, mobile apps from Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter and Pinterest, and in the iOS version of Chrome.
But New York City-based proximity marketing tech firm Beaconstac prefers Nearby Notifications instead of Chrome for making URLs available in the real world, CEO and co-founder Sharat Potharaju told me.
The physical web
First, he noted, Chrome doesn’t have much market share on iOS, so it’s not like relying on an Android-based notifications feature shrinks the market.
Then there’s the fact that the URL presented through Nearby Notifications can have a deep link, meaning that it can link directly to a specific screen in an installed app, in addition to linking to a web site. “You couldn’t do that in Chrome,” he told me.
And Nearby allows for some filtering logic, such as notifications that are only shown at certain times of day or on certain days. Or different people can see different URLs. Showing Eddystone URLs in both Chrome and Nearby, he noted, meant the user was seeing physical world links into two locations, which was confusing.
Plus, he said, links to Nearby can be more readily integrated with apps, such as a beacon-broadcast URL that shows an overlay for a store location on top of Google Maps.
Potharaju agreed that Google uses its own platform intelligence to screen out notifications, what Graves describes as “curation.” But Potharaju sees that as an advantage, because a user won’t walk down the street and be deluged with links to Happy Hours. He said that Google accepts all URLs; it just doesn’t show them all.
“A lot of [smartphone] OEMs” are investigating Nearby services, he told me, so expect a flood of ways to use these URLs.
In other words, the Physical Web may have died, but the physical web may be in the process of being born.