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article imageThe power of the Physical Web is now available to Android users

By James Walker     Feb 11, 2016 in Technology
The Android version of Google's Chrome web browser now includes support for the Physical Web, the concept of real devices sending notifications and alerts to the phone in your pocket. Google says Physical Web beacons are becoming more widespread.
The Physical Web is a component of the overall "Internet of Things" concept. Devices that are a part of the Physical Web act like beacons, sending a signal to nearby phones and tablets that the user can interact with straight from the alert.
Google's example in its blog post shows how a vending machine equipped with a Physical Web beacon could push a notification to a smartphone user as they approached it. Tapping the alert would load the device's webpage, in this case displaying a game allowing the user to "score some candy."
The Physical Web is still relatively unknown as it is more obscure than the generalised Internet of Things. Part of this may be because mobile devices aren't really compatible with it yet, even though the Physical Web makes the most sense on a smartphone.
Google is now going to change that, expanding Physical Devices support in Chrome to Android phones from version 49. The feature is already available as an initial release on Chrome for iOS.
Chrome for Android will display a notification to users the first time that it detects a beacon nearby. Tapping it will enable and configure the Physical Web, a one-time procedure that sets the phone up and introduces the user to the concept.
The next time that a beacon is encountered, the user will receive a notification that will let them see nearby devices and webpages and load the content. The URL of the webpage is displayed to the user to help protect against hackers spoofing a device, although this remains a problem with the Physical Web.
Users are essentially left to trust that the device that sent them a notification is actually a device. An attacker could fake a Physical Web beacon though, directing people towards malicious webpages designed to steal personal details, install software on the phone or exploit known weaknesses in the operating system.
A Physical Web beacon at Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2016
A Physical Web beacon at Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2016
Physical Web beacons are still few and far between but the problem is likely to become more significant in the future. Google notes that beacons have been used successfully in a few different locations, including a middle school that uses beacons to distribute class notes and news updates and sports teams that send welcome content and brochures to the phones of their fans as they walk through their stadium gates.
In the future, Physical Web could be used in many more diverse scenarios. Imagine a supermarket that alerts you to its daily deal as you walked through the door, or a bus stop that tells you when the next bus arrives as you approach it. The emphasis here is on delivering short, simple pieces of information as quickly as possible, keeping the user informed of the physical conditions around them.
When it added Physical Web support to Chrome for iOS, Google said: "Today’s connected world is full of opportunities for people to digitally interact with their surroundings on the fly. For example, smart parking meters let users pay through the cloud. But for developers, it’s often difficult to build contextual experiences that people can easily access. Even with the prevalence of smartphones, users are reluctant to install an app or even type a URL while on the go."
Physical Web beacons may still be scarce but the technology is an intriguing component of the Internet of Things that could prove its worth as it becomes more widespread. By adding support to Chrome for Android, Google can connect millions more people, making the system more attractive to developers and thus increasing the number of places where digital interaction is possible.
More about Google, Google chrome, Android, Smartphone, physical web
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