Upward Mobility: Why iBeacons Matter

Get ready for a new generation of position-aware apps

Fans of near field communications payment solutions were, yet again, disappointed when the new batch of iPhones failed to include NFC in their list of features. While it might indeed be nifty for iPhone users to be able to join the Google Wallet revolution, another game-changing technology that Apple has launched has largely gone unnoticed. That would be the iBeacon framework built into iOS7.

iBeacon leverages Bluetooth Low Energy (part of the Bluetooth 4.0 standard), which has been incorporated into iPhones since the iPhone 4S. There are already a ton of applications using Bluetooth LE, notably the gaggle of Kickstarter-funded “find your lost keys” devices that use a small BLE dongle. What’s new is the framework, which allows applications to determine proximity to BLE beacons simply, and even when the app isn’t running. And BLE beacons are relatively cheap, you can get three of them for $99.


The possibilities for iBeacon-enabled apps are endless. A museum app could use iBeacons scattered through an exhibit to triangulate your position down to a particular display, and automatically cue up the right information. In a supermarket, you could get promotions for products as you pass them in the aisle. A single iBeacon could let a store app let you know about a sale as you pass by in the mall, something GPS can’t do under the best of circumstances because there’s no coverage inside.

Apple loves to partner with well-known brands for launches of new technology, and iBeacon is no different. Major League Baseball is piloting a program that will provide turn-by-turn directions to your seat in select ballparks. This is just one example of how BLE and iBeacon are going to make apps much more positionally aware, and at a level of detail that traditional geolocation just can’t match.

The best part is that Android has recently introduced BLE support into the core of the operating system as well. As of Jelly Bean, BLE services are available in the OS, so this isn’t an Apple-only game. What Android lacks at the moment is the iBeacon ability to watch for BLE devices when the app isn’t even running.

Some might say that this is going to be yet another invasion of privacy, and usher in the dystopic future where advertisements assault you constantly as you walk down the street. I humbly disagree, at least for the moment. Like all Apple geolocation services, you have to opt-in to letting an app know where you are, iBeacon-wise. If you don’t want to have Hot Topic pestering you about new My Little Pony shirts every time you walk by it in the mall, don’t enable the feature.

tags: , ,

Get the O’Reilly Programming Newsletter

Weekly insight from industry insiders. Plus exclusive content and offers.