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Google wants to help stores speak to your smartphone, just like Apple

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Bluetooth beacons are little gadgets that can broadcast location-based information to your phone over — you guessed it — Bluetooth. They've long been at the heart of the heady promises (or threats) we've heard about the Internet of Things: A subway can tell when the next train is coming! A retail store can alert you to a deal on those shoes you're trying on! You can finally get mapping to work in the basement of the mall! But for various reasons, they haven't spread as rapidly as their proponents have hoped.

To date, the widest implementation of these beacons has been Apple's iBeacon tech, but now Google is entering the fray in a more serious way with an open standard it's calling Eddystone (after the lighthouse, you see). Eddystone isn't technically supposed to just be a Google project, though, as the company is open-sourcing many of the necessary specs and elements that make up a beacon ecosystem.

Eddystone has a lot of moving parts

Ars Technica spoke with the engineers behind the project at Google and have a good technical breakdown of the Eddystone platform. It differentiates itself from iBeacon by working with both Android and iOS, but it also seems to be more technically capable too: it can send URLs that can work with any app or just a web browser, for example, and make it easier for the company that's deploying them to manage their fleet of gadgets. Eddystone also allows for beacons that can change their unique identifiers, which might make them safer to put inside your suitcase.

Beyond technical issues, there may be another reason that Bluetooth beacons haven't spread as widely as they might have: privacy concerns. It's possible that the apps that the beacons communicate with could call home with the location data stored in the beacon — so Macy's could figure out just how you're wandering in the store. Last year, BuzzFeed discovered that 500 beacons had been installed in New York City phone booths, which turned out to have been installed to send deals related to the Tribeca film festival, but nonetheless were a disconcerting discovery.

Whether or not Eddystone will move any of those concerns in the right direction is obviously an open question, but it's worth noting again that Google intends this to be an open-source, wide-ranging ecosystem — not simply a way for Google to find another way to insert itself into your digital life. Instead of talking about ads, the company says it's planning on using beacons to send non-interruptive notifications to Google Now so that it can show relevant information based on your location, "like showing you menu items when you’re inside a restaurant." We won't know if Eddystone beacons can supplant iBeacons anytime soon, much less make Bluetooth beacons as common as Wi-Fi hotspots — but it's a good bet that they won't show up in an Apple store anytime soon.