Beyond the technology

I am very excited so many are getting involved with the Physical Web. Nearly 3500 people have starred the github, with many active collaborators finding bugs and adding features. In addition, several companies are selling beacons that broadcast URLs (using the URIBeacon standard). While it’s still early days for this technology, it’s encouraging to see so many people supporting this open approach to extend the web into the physical world.

Since the ecosystem is still evolving, it’s understandable to see some generalizations popping up. Some have compared the Physical Web to iBeacon for the simple reason that they both use Bluetooth Low energy beacons. It’s a bit like saying two products both use wifi and therefore they must be after the same market.  Let’s get beyond the underlying technology and discuss the three core things the Physical Web is trying to do and what sets it apart.

1:  Driven by the promise of the web
The promise of the web is that anyone using any device can get access to information and services. It’s a tall order, but by any measure, it’s been wildly successful these last 25 years. Now that well over a billion people are using the web today, it’s important that we look to the next billion and how we scale a solution that meets the rapid expansion of the developing world. Technology should not be driven only for the benefit of those that can afford the most expensive toys.

Building upon the web gives us a huge advantage: we’re using a well understood, secure, and tested base. The Physical Web is nothing more than a discovery system (we often geekishly call it a “Proximity DNS“) that gets you to a web page quickly and easily. It’s a powerful tool that allows people, with just a few taps, to see a universally viewable, responsive web page.

2: Long Tail like the web
Today, there are still relatively small numbers of connected devices so having a few apps on your phone is manageable. However, that is likely to explode, unlocking value both big and small. One of the biggest insights of the web was the value of its “long tail”: millions of small sites and services that aggregate into a huge market. This long tail applies equally to smart devices.

The Physical Web’s primary value is to enable a device to place at users’ fingertips anything from a tiny piece of location-based information to a full blown web app.

  • A dog collar could let you call a service to find the owner.
  • A bus could tell you its next stop.
  • A city rent-a-bike service could let you sign up on the spot.
  • A home appliance could offer an interactive tutorial.
  • An industrial robot could display diagnostic information.
  • A mall could offer a map.

Each of these examples, taken by itself, is modestly useful. Taken as a whole, however, they imply a vast “long tail” where anything can offer information and utility.

So many people ask what is the ‘killer app’ for the Physical Web. That’s a bit like asking what is the killer app for the web itself. When any place and object can offer a web page for help, information, configuration, or use, we’ll unlock millions of things, rather than a single killer product.

Decentralized like the web
The Physical Web is just an extension of the existing web. Like all web technologies, it can’t be the product of any one company. By broadcasting simple URLs we are decentralizing the entire system. There is no central server, no gatekeeper. This is unlike nearly every other smart device system today.

Our client apps (which are just prototypes—they could eventually be integrated with other apps, like browsers) are meant to be used by any company. We would be thrilled if other browser makers would take this code and integrate it. Like the web, this needs to be available to everyone.

These three aspects of the Physical Web are its core philosophical building blocks: being part of the web, as long tail as the web, and as decentralized as the web. They represent an approach that is far more than just being about using ‘a bluetooth beacon’. It’s about building something in a way the lets everyone play using tools that we already trust, in a way that can’t be controlled by any company.