What is iBeacon? And why do most of us not have a clue as to why it is so important to… well, pretty much everyone?
Face it, we are all used to Apple putting on one heck of a show when it releases some new revolutionary product. They are so good at it that, even if you are a pretty low tech kind of person, it is hard to avoid hearing the news. Well here’s one that they have barely mentioned in their last to big product reveals: iBeacon. Although iBeacon showed up in a slide during their Worldwide Developers Conference last June as a feature of their new iO7 mobile operating system, it wasn’t mentioned at all during that products presentation. And what did they say about it last week when they revealed the new line of iPhones that sport the new system? Nothing!
This is amazing since it could lead to a huge wave of new apps for such things as indoor mapping, in-store marketing, mobile payment systems and will probably make a true “internet of things” possible even sooner. Perhaps it is because it isn’t news for the general public yet. Apple is probably more concerned with creating an environment of applications and partnerships with other companies to ensure adoption. Only then will they really have something that is easy to demonstrate to their end-user. However it is a HUGE deal to companies that want to leverage it for their own uses. Here’s a video from one of those companies, Estimote, that also does a good job of showing a few of the many ways that iBeacon can be used:
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So, What is iBeacon?
iBeacon uses Bluetooth Low Energy, otherwise known as BLE, and creates a beacon around a physical area so that an app can be alerted when a user enters them. The beacons come in the form of small wireless sensors which, when placed inside any physical space, will transmit data to your iPhone using Bluetooth.
The most used real-world example of this is typically when a person goes to a store with the new Apple iPhone 5s that comes is equipped both iO7 and iBeacon. When they enter the store’s beacon field it can interact with the iBeacon on their phone and give them customized information such as special promotional offers, directions to where the product they wish to purchase is located, or recommendations based on their current location or purchasing history. This is what is known in the industry as “personalized microlocation-based notifications and actions”. doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue does it? Perhaps that’s why Apple is waiting to slowly roll out this new concept to the public. Something this new, complex and pervasive could be perceived as being scary and big brother-ish as much as empowering.
As a note on the empowerment side: it has been shown that the iBeacon can actually communicate in both directions. In other words when you go into that fictitious store or restaurant, what if you and your phone communicated to them, “I’m not buying today” or “I’m looking for a new shirt in a large” or “I’m vegan”. Then they can accommodate you and provide you with a higher level of service without the hassle or miscommunication.
These days everyone in the tech world is hot for context. This means that they want to provide or take advantage of information that is placed within real world context. This gives the information real value. A system like the one that iBeacon promises can provide this type of contextual information when it is needed. Just like one of the more common uses for NFC, or Near Field Communication, iBeacons will even allow you to make payments using your smart phone. Here’s where it gets good: iBeacon runs on a single coin battery that can run for up to two years and includes an accelerometer, flash memory, a powerful ARM processor and Bluetooth connectivity. And the more sensors that are added to a system the better and more precise the context will be provided to the iBeacon.
What is NFC and Why is iBeacon Better?
NFC, otherwise known as Near Field Communication, is a very low power, short range form of wireless. It’s primary use so far has been for exchanging information and files between smartphones and as a means of using the phone to transfer funds at a payment terminal. There are a couple of significant limitations with NFC. It’s real world range is less than 2 inches (4cm). That means that when it is used to communicate with sensor tags in an environment like a retail store, the user has to be within 2 inches for it to communicate. The range for an iBeacon is up to 165 feet (50 meters). Another limitation is that NFC functionality on a phone requires its own chip. This chip is in addition to the ones already included on a device that will almost always have Bluetooth as well. Why not take advantage of a Bluetooth chip that is already there instead of adding another one?
Google and NFC Versus Apple and Bluetooth
What we are really witnessing is a war between Google and their support of NFC and Apple and their support of BLE (also known as Bluetooth 4.0 or Bluetooth Smart). Google has only started to support BLE with the release of Android version 4.3 and this was only done under extreme pressure from app developers. Many app developers couldn’t create their products for Android phones because of the lack of BLE.
Meanwhile Apple had been mysteriously avoiding NFC. Even when the iPhone 5s and 5c rolled out recently many were confused by its lack of NFC support. But as we start to wrap our heads around iBeacon and what it means and what it can do, it is easy to understand why. They do not feel the need to support yet another form of wireless and are committed to Bluetooth and WiFi. In the words of Apple’s mobile development chief Craig Federighi, “There’s no need to wander around the room, bumping your phone”. ANd Apple’s AirDrop allows their phones to share files across WiFi, so unless you are in a remote part of the ocean, why bump phones together? We agree! Between NFC, gesture controls, and the crazy smart watch phenomenon, we at QTOOTH are wondering what’s up with all this hands on approach to technology? Wireless is what will make our world hands-free so we can use them for more important things, like sports, hobbies, carrying things or holding hands! (Hey, why not? I guess we’re romantics at heart!)
There’s a few more things that iBeacon will do that NFC can’t: indoor mapping with navigation (hey, I’m in aisle 5!), share files with ANYONE on ANY PLATFORM using BLE, and the promise of making the sensors ever smaller and less obtrusive.
There’s the wise view of “the world is what it is, not as it should be”. QTOOTH is gonna go out on a limb and say how we think it should be: iBeacon in. NFC out.