What is Apple’s iBeacon?

Sometimes the biggest changes in technology have the smallest beginnings. In the summer of 2013, Apple announced iBeacon, a nerdy—sounding feature of its new operating system that would “provide apps a whole new level of location awareness”.

It’s taken a few months to appear in the real world, but from CES to grocery stores — and, of course, Apple’s shops themselves — iBeacon now seems to be popping up everywhere.

What is iBeacon? It’s a new technology developed by Apple, built into its operating systems and devices since 2013, and it may “change the world forever”, according to the Washington Post.

The technology lets businesses set up transmitters which can tell nearby smartphones of their presence. It may not sound like much, but combined with the right software, it opens up a massive number of possibilities.

With iBeacon set up, shops could send customers special offers for goods they are walking past, prepare pre—ordered items for pickup the minute someone comes through the door (the end of queueing!) or remind the customer about their shopping list — fish when they are standing at the fish counter, bread at the bakery, and so on.

And it can be used in more than just retail. Nomi, a New York–based firm which specialises in these sort of set–ups, has worked with theme parks, concert venues and stadiums, as well as restaurants and car companies.

In December, Bar Kick, a table–football–themed coffee shop in Shoreditch, east London, became one of the first in Britain to implement the technology, giving away free copies of music magazine Dazed & Confused and football magazine When Saturday Comes, but only to patrons actually inside the cafe.

Privacy issues

Aren’t there privacy issues with that? Yes. While iBeacon brings the advantages of the internet to the real world, it also brings the downsides.

Just using data from old–fashioned loyalty cards, the US retailer Target famously discovered a teenage girl was pregnant before her own father knew; think how much more information can be inferred by knowing not only what a customer has bought, but also how long they stopped to look at a product they didn’t buy, how hurriedly they moved through the store, and the times they didn’t buy anything at all.

But for iBeacon to work, customers need to install the app of the retailer they are visiting, providing an easy way to opt out of any tracking. Of course, if there’s money—off vouchers and free stuff involved, how many people will really opt–out? Is this another Apple walled garden? Although iBeacon is an Apple trademark, the technology behind it is an open standard. An iBeacon transmitter is just a small, low–owered bluetooth aerial, shouting its name to anyone who asks. The actual tracking is done in software on the customer’s phone which, using works out its location using triangulation; if iBeacon #3452435 is 20m away, iBeacon #3491035 is 5m away, and iBeacon #9045902 is 50m away, then the customer must be in the wine aisle.

While Apple’s iOS 7 has the required abilities to do this built into the operating system, any Android phone with Bluetooth and Android 4.3 or above can pick up the same signals, and it’s on the app developers to make the most of them.

What about NFC? Some have viewed iBeacon as Apple’s answer to “Near Field Communications” (NFC), which lets compatible phones send information in the same way a contactless credit card.

The two technologies are very different on the surface: NFC only works at ranges of tens of centimetres, and requires special hardware in the phone to get working. But they both offer a way to link the physical and digital worlds — and there’s probably only room for one.— © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2014



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