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Physical Web Overview

Google’s “Physical Web” suggests URLs, not apps, are the future of the Internet of Things

The Physical Web, a new project from Google’s Chrome team, might sound like an attempt to rebrand the Internet of Things. It’s not. In fact, it’s returning to the roots of the Web to provide a lightweight discovery and interaction layer to the IoT.

Remember back in the 1990s, when we all had to learn that the Internet and the World Wide Web were different entities? The former is a vast communications infrastructure; the latter is just the layer we interact with in our browsers. So while the Internet of Things is the collection of smart objects and devices that are rapidly connecting to the Internet, the Physical Web is intended to become the ubiquitous layer of interaction that makes it possible for us to use all those things in a smooth, intuitive way.

As early adopters of smart home devices quickly realized, a major usability barrier to the IoT is the app-to-device ratio. When the only way to interact with every new product you buy is through a specialized app, using your “smart” home becomes unwieldy. Other apps and services have sprung up to unify devices and services across manufacturers, essentially competing to become the universal remote of the IoT. But the core problem remains, as those apps have to keep up with an ever-expanding landscape of APIs and wireless protocols.

Google’s approach is to scrap the app altogether and return to the fundamental building block of the traditional web: the URL.

“The Physical Web is a discovery service: a smart object broadcasts relevant URLs that any nearby device can receive,” says the ReadMe file on the Physical Web GitHub page. “Our core premise is that you should be able to walk up to any ‘smart’ physical object (e.g. a vending machine, a poster, a toy, a bus stop, a rental car) and interact with it without first downloading an app. The user experience of smart objects should be much like links in a web browser: i.e., just tap and use.”

Digging deeper, the documentation reveals that the idea is essentially to present users with a search engine for the world around them. Your browser will display URLs representing the beacon-style broadcasts of nearby smart objects, and rank them like search results by some combination of proximity, signal strength, user preferences and browsing history.

Tapping the link for a nearby bus stop might bring up a schedule of upcoming buses and their routes; a vending machine might offer a web page with further links to select your product and pay digitally; the camera-equipped mannequin in a shop window might lead you into a full-scale web app that would let you “try on” clothes by digitally superimposing them on your own image. Wherever each object’s URL leads, it would all happen in your browser, without the need to download special-purpose apps for each experience.


Physical Web Tech Stack

If that sounds deceptively simple, it probably is. Privacy, spam, and usability issues will need to be worked out before this concept could truly take off, and the Chrome team is well aware of the challenges ahead. They’re also confident that the Physical Web can work, and are taking proactive steps to make the idea appealing -- such as requiring that push notifications are opt-in only, and ensuring that beacons are broadcast-only (users don’t connect to the beacons; you’ll use your own mobile or wifi connection to access URLs, just like accessing any non-physical website).

The Physical Web project is meant to develop an open standard that will eventually be built into the OS of every smartphone and tablet. (Though, ironically, the current prototype is delivered as a standalone app that runs in the background.) As such, it’s being developed in the open: All the technical documentation is available on GitHub.

Want to help shape the evolution of the Physical Web? It’s as easy as clicking a link.

Related: Mobile Apps Must Die, Bluetooth Beacon Handbook
Additional: Scott Jenson's Website, HackerNews Comments