iBeacons, an Amazing New Feature of iOS 7

Not much has been said about iBeacons, but if you have an iOS device from the past two years and iOS 7, you've got iBeacons capability. Eventually you'll be hearing a lot about it. This functionality lets companies place tiny transmitters in specific locations, such as a retail store. They can program these with information and offers. And as you approach that specific location, your iBeacons-enabled app will wake up and put relevant information on your screen, such as a coupon for a discount. Or a museum might place a transmitter by each exhibit, and as you near the exhibit, information will automatically pop up on your screen. According to an interesting article on Macworld, Major League Baseball is one of the first developers to add this feature to their app, the very popular MLB.com At the Ballpark. As you enter the park, a welcome page appears on your iPhone. Then further into the stadium your tickets appear on the screen. And then as you begin to head to your seat, a seat mapper appears with turn-by-turn directions. Other uses will be location-specific coupons, special offers at concession stands, and videos. The feature has been in testing this past summer and will be rolled out next year. 

In some ways it sounds similar to Apple's Passbook, which has location-aware capability. Whereas Passbook uses cell towers or WiFi or GPS to sense your location, iBeacons uses Bluetooth to sense when you're in range of an iBeacons transmitter. Specifically it uses the more recent Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) technology. One advantage of this is that your device consumes very little power while it's actively watching for iBeacons transmitters. Also, according to an article on Bloomberg Businessweek, which characterizes iBeacons as "Apple's secret retail weapon," the three location technologies used by Passbook are only accurate to about 30 feet, whereas iBeacons is more useful in smaller spaces such as a retail store. And there may be instances in which GPS or WiFi or even a cell phone signal may not be available.

Also, in some ways iBeacons is similar to the near field communication (NFC) technology found on some Android phones that's used for point-of-sale purchases and other purposes. You simply tap an NFC-enabled terminal with your phone to make the transaction. But NFC requires a special chip, and it hasn't really caught on. Plus many devices don't have it. Bluetooth, on the other hand, comes on most devices, so it's more widely available.

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In addition, the tiny Bluetooth transmitters are apparently much less expensive than NFC chips. Major League Baseball parks, for example, will be able to deploy them at a much cheaper cost. 

How much do they cost? Estimote is selling a three-pack for $99. This video from Estimote gives you a good idea how iBeacons works and what sorts of uses it can have.

Another early implementation of iBeacons is the "tap-to-setup" feature that comes with Apple's third-generation Apple TV set-top box. In order to set up a new Apple TV, you simply tap it with an iOS 7 device. According to an article on AppleInsider, tapping your device transfers your Wi-Fi network information, iTunes Store credentials, and language and region preferences. The article also explains that iBeacons can not only sense that an iBeacons-enabled device is near, but also can sense how close it is, such that the communication between the iOS 7 device and Apple TV requires a tap.

It's not clear why Apple hasn't yet said much about iBeacons. A great article about it on GigaOm says that it was only noted on one of the slides during Apple's introduction of iOS 7 at WWDC last June. The presentation didn't give any information about it, nor did Apple say anything about it during the recent iPhone 5s/5c event. The GigaOm talks about the "Internet of things" — how iBeacons is an inexpensive way for devices to communication with one another in local areas. It also explains why it's a better and cheaper solution than NFC.

Another thorough article explaining the advantages of iBeacons was posted on AppleInsider after the June WWDC event. In particular, it talks about how iBeacons can work in conjunction with Apple's Passbook app.

Interestingly, your iOS device itself can not only receive transmissions from iBeacons transmitters, but it can itself be a transmitter. You could imagine that this function could be used by members of an organization to let you know when other members are nearby, or maybe it could be useful as part of a dating app.

So what's Apple waiting for? Why don't they say more about it? An article on TidBITS notes that it first requires developers to build the functionality into their apps. And not many have. I'm guessing that at a certain point Apple will focus on introducing iBeacons to developers, and facilitate the incorporation of this functionality. And then when there are a number of appealing apps ready for primetime, Apple will introduce it as part of one of their events.

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Jim Karpen's picture

Jim Karpen holds a Ph.D. in literature and writing, and has a love of gizmos. His doctoral dissertation focused on the revolutionary consequences of digital technologies and anticipated some of the developments taking place in the industry today. Jim has been writing about the Internet and technology since 1994 and has been using Apple's visionary products for decades.