Aruba cheats on Wi-Fi by having a tryst with Bluetooth beacons

You would think that promoting Bluetooth networking would be the last thing that the world’s second largest maker of enterprise Wi-Fi gear would be doing. But Aruba Networks is flaunting its love for Bluetooth in Santa Clara where it’s kitted out Levi’s Stadium with a massive beacon network. There, San Francisco 49ers fans can use flit among a thousand beacon signals to navigate their way through its seats and concessions.

Sure, there’s nothing preventing a networking company from exploring different technologies, but [company]Aruba[/company]’s embrace of Bluetooth Low Energy is odd, as Aruba originally planned to accomplish everything a beacon can do with its Wi-Fi gear. In fact, last year Aruba bought a Wi-Fi indoor location company called Meridian to help it map public indoor spaces by their Wi-Fi signals and offer proximity-based services.

So what happened? Well, [company]Apple[/company] happened.

iBeacon demonstration example mobile shopping

An Estimote rendering of how beacons work for proximity-based services

Apple doesn’t like Wi-Fi-based positioning for privacy reasons, and it made many changes to iOS 7 and iOS 8 to prevent apps from using Wi-Fi signals for triangulation, including eliminating a developer API that controls Wi-Fi scanning, explained Jeff Hardison, VP of marketing and business development for Aruba’s Meridian group.

If the Wi-Fi industry was going to continue to push Wi-Fi as a proximity-based location technology then it would have had to accept the fact that accuracy and responsiveness on the iPhone and iPad was going to be much wore than on Android devices. Given Apple’s huge market share and influence, Wi-Fi’s hand was forced.

Luckily Apple offered up the iBeacon as an alternative, which turned out to be a welcome tradeoff because it turns out to be much more precise, Hardison said. BLE beacons can determine location for indoor navigation purposed down to 1-to-3 meters and it can trigger events (such as push notifications) at distances less than a meter, Hardison said.

Once Aruba decided to give up on Wi-Fi as a location tool, it committed wholeheartedly, building its own line of beacons that integrate with its Wi-Fi access points and controllers. What you get is basically a single network with two radio technologies.

So far we’ve seen a lot of beacons used for loyalty and marketing purposes, which frankly isn’t that exciting (Walk into a store, get pushed a store coupon. Wow!). But in the 1,000-beacon deployment at Levi’s Stadium, we’re seeing some cool new applications pop up. Want a hot dog? The 49ers app will generate a map giving you turn-by-turn directions from your seat to the closest concession stand. It can even use your location to allow you pre-order your food from the nearest vendor.

As for Wi-Fi, Aruba certainly hasn’t given up on its long-running relationship with the wireless LAN. But Aruba does seem to have to come to the realization that there are some things the old girl can’t do.