At WWDC in June, Apple quietly announced iBeacon, one of the more prominent features of iOS 7. Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of Software Engineering, mentioned nothing about about it in the keynote, and Apple hasn’t provided any details about it; it was only seen on one slide in the WWDC keynote.
Nor did Apple say anything about it during the iPhone event Tuesday. But I’m sure this is going to be a big deal, and startup companies like Estimote agree, announcing its support for Apple’s technology Tuesday and releasing this demonstration video.
Why is that so? For a couple of reasons: it opens a door to new set of applications such as indoor maps and in-store marketing, it makes the internet of things a realty and it might kill NFC (near-field communications), the wireless technology most linked with mobile payments.
What is iBeacon?
Using Bluetooth Low Energy(BLE), iBeacon opens up a new whole dimension by creating a beacon around regions so your app can be alerted when users enter them. Beacons are a small wireless sensors placed inside any physical space that transmit data to your iPhone using Bluetooth Low Energy (also known as Bluetooth 4.0 and Bluetooth Smart).
For example, imagine you walk into a mall with an iPhone 5s (comes with iOS 7 and iBeacon). You are approaching a Macy’s store, which means your iPhone is entering into Macy’s iBeacon region. Essentially iBeacon can transmit customized coupons or even walking directions to the aisle where a particular item is located. It can prompt a customer with special promotions or a personalized messages and recommendations based on their current location or past history with the company. Smartphones that are in an iBeacon zone will benefit from personalized microlocation-based notification and actions.
In the age of context, iBeacon can provide the information you needed when it is needed. Just like NFC, iBeacons even allow you to pay the bill using your smart phone. The best part? iBeacon can run for up to two years on a single coin battery and it comes with accelerometer, flash memory, a powerful ARM processor and Bluetooth connectivity. Also, you can add more sensors to iBeacon to provide better context.
What is BLE?
As the name implies, Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) is built specifically to consume small amounts of energy and make phone batteries last longer. But there are limitations with BLE when it comes to transferring data. BLE only supports very low data rates and you cannot stream audio using BLE. You can send small files using BLE and it is a good candidate for small data packets sent from wearable computing such as smart watches and fitness trackers. Built-in platform support for BLE was only added in Android 4.3 (some Android OEMs like Samsung and HTC did develop their own SDKs for BLE prior to Google releasing native support), which is why fitness tracker apps won’t work on some old Android phones.
Why it might be a NFC killer?
iBeacon could be a NFC killer because of its range. NFC tags are pretty cheap compared to NFC chips, but NFC tags are required on each product because NFC works only in very close proximity. In theory, NFC range is up to 20cm (7.87 inches), but the actual optimal range is less than 4cm (1.57 inches). Also, mobile devices need to contain a NFC chip that can handle any NFC communications. On the other hand, iBeacons are a little expensive compared to NFC chips, but iBeacons range is up to 50 meters. Not all phones have NFC chips, but almost all have Bluetooth capability.
Why it is so affordable?
Let’s go back to Macy’s. The average area occupied by a Macy’s store is 175,000 square feet, which is 16,258 square meters. iBeacon’s range is 50 meters (typical Bluetooth range), or 2,500 square meters. So a typical Macy’s store would need 7 iBeacons.
Estimote, a company which just launched to sell beacons, is taking pre-orders at the price of $99 for 3 beacons. The range of Estimote’s beacons is 50 meters, but the recommended range is 10 meters. If you go with the recommendation, you need 1 Estimote beacon for every 100 square meters, which would cost you about $5,000. If Macy’s wanted to add NFC tags (each at 10 cents) to all its products to send information to phones, it would cost $1,000 for 10,000 products, $10,000 for 100,000 products and $100,000 for 1 million products. NFC may not be needed on all products, but this will give a rough idea on how much it could cost.
Google’s focus is on NFC; it just added BLE support to Android
Google has been heavily focused on NFC from the beginning and it didn’t add platform support for BLE until the release of version 4.3. Lot of the apps that rely on BLE couldn’t release the apps for Android phones. Some Android OEM vendors recognized the need and rolled out their own implementations. Google finally listened to the demand and made it part of Android 4.3. But Google has continued to push on NFC and rolled out the NFC-based Android Beam in Android 4.0.
Apple’s focus on Bluetooth
Apple has avoided NFC, and all the rumors about NFC getting added to iPhone 4 and iPhone 5 are turned out to be false. Instead of NFC, Apple worked on alternatives using Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. During the introduction of iOS 7′s AirDrop at WWDC in June, Apple’s mobile development chief Craig Federighi said, “There’s no need to wander around the room, bumping your phone,” referring how NFC phones need to be very close to transfer the data. As stated on Apple’s website:
AirDrop lets you quickly and easily share photos, videos, contacts — and anything else from any app with a Share button. Just tap Share, then select the person you want to share with. AirDrop does the rest using Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. No setup required. And transfers are encrypted, so what you share is highly secure.
New set of applications
With built-in microlocation geofencing features, iBeacon opens a door to new set of applications in indoor mapping. The GPS signals inside malls are very poor as the signals travel by line of sight, meaning they will pass through clouds, glass and plastic but will not go through most solid objects such as buildings and mountains.
This is the biggest problem for indoor navigation. Google has done in-store maps, but it couldn’t implement indoor navigation because of the line of sight issue. This is where iBeacon’s micro-location feature is going to shine.
From your smart phone, you’ll be able to connect to a nearest iBeacon and get its hard coded GPS location to navigate or use the signal to move to closer to iBeacon. iBeacon supports “enter” and “exit” events, so it can send different notifications while entering into the range and exiting out of the range. Imagine having a museum indoor tour with navigation, in-store navigation to the physical products, or navigation to terminals inside airports and subways.
BLE is the answer to internet of things
To make the internet of things a reality, a sensor’s form factor is very crucial. Size, affordability and internet connectivity are the key factors in a sensor. The possibilities are endless if you could control all sensors these remotely; switching on the AC on the way back home, controlling the refrigerator temperature based on the weather, controlling the room lighting from your smart phone, and so on. Estimote is also working on reducing the size of its beacons so that that they will be more affordable.
Apple has found a smart way to wirelessly transmit data over short distances using BLE. So why do you need to bump your phone with another? Why do you need NFC if you could share the data with anyone in the region with the existing bluetooth technology?
BLE can solve these microlocation data challenges in ways that NFC can’t duplicate.
Hari Gottipati is a software professional, distinguished architect, thought leader, consultant, speaker and freelance writer who specializes in Open Systems, Java, internet scale computing/apps, big data, NoSQL, mobile and Web 2.0. He is currently working as a distinguished principal architect at Apollo Group and in the past he worked for many mobile startups, as well as big companies including Yahoo, Travelocity, and Motorola.