Before getting into what can be done with iBeacons, though, it’s useful to discuss what an iBeacon actually is. A Beacon is a low-cost, small piece of hardware that utilizes battery-friendly low-energy Bluetooth connections to monitor users’ activities and transmit messages or prompts to their smartphones or tablets. iBeacons is the software component on those smartphones or tablets.
This is a huge step up over the current alternatives, which are GPS, NFC or cell-tower based. Often, users lose cell reception indoors or the tracking services become far less accurate. Furthermore, GPS and NFC tracking on iPhones and Android phones drain the respective batteries big time. By using the newest iteration of the Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) connection protocol, Apple has figured out how to enable this breakthrough concept without killing your battery in the process.
The first industries really championing this technology are retail locations and offline payment providers, which makes sense. Retail companies want to be able to interact with you while you’re inside their stores. Research shows that at least 50 percent of shoppers use their phones to help them shop already. Why not make that experience seamless?
Think of it this way: You’re walking through an airport, and your phone knows you normally buy a cup of coffee around 8am. So, it sends you a prompt letting you know that a Starbucks is 50 feet away on your left. Or, you’re in a clothing store. Based on your buying history, your phone knows your size and what styles you prefer, so it sends you a prompt telling you where to go in the store to look for those types of items. Maybe you’re in a grocery store buying a bottle of wine? Your phone knows you like Merlot and there’s a sale on one of your favorite bottles one row over… Your phone could send you a push notification alerting you to that sale.
Offline payment providers see huge potential as well. What if every taxi was equipped with a Beacon. Your phone would interface with the cab, letting it know that you’re riding in that car. When it’s time to pay, you simply get out of the cab and the cab charges your phone once you’ve left the Beacon’s immediate vicinity.
Others see integration with Passbook being huge. Instead of waiting in line at the airport to show your ticket, Beacons placed in the security area could determine who you are and interface with your Passbook to find any relevant airline tickets. When you got to the front of the security line, the TSA agents could see your face and all your information on a computer screen or tablet and check you in without you ever having to present a ticket at all.
There are countless ways this technology could be huge. You could automate your entire home to turn off lights and appliances once you leave and turn everything on once you get home. Transit systems could use them to alert travelers to delays or forecast surges in traffic based on the number of phones their Beacons detect. Sports and concert venues could use them to take your ticket and direct you to your seat. The list goes on and on.
Multiple companies beyond Apple are taking notice, too. PayPal and Qualcomm are building hardware of their own while smaller vendors like Estimote, Swirl, and GPShopper are entering the mix too.
There are still a few barriers to adoption. Namely, users have a lot of opting-in to do. They have to turn on location services, turn on BLE, accept location services on every relevant app, accept BLE connections on every relevant app and opt-in to receive notifications from those apps. This could hamper adoption by the non-tech-savvy crowd (which is most consumers).
Also, with a stream of privacy invasion articles about the NSA and private companies like Facebook, Google and Apple, it’s tough to say whether consumers will tolerate this level of intrusive knowledge from companies. Do consumers really want Apple knowing everything about their every buying habit? How much information will Apple share with retailers so they can ping the heck out of you? Will the prompts actually prove useful, directing you to products or services you’re likely to want? Or will they simply be blanket advertisements that users will tune out?
It’s tough to say exactly how this technology will manifest itself over the coming months. But, there’s no doubt that it could be a real game changer for many industries if consumers respond positively.