What is an iBeacon and why do they matter to Apple's shopping strategy?

Today in Apple: iBeacons and why they matter. Plus: Consumer Reports and the iPhone 5S and 5C, and the new iPhones stop iOS fragmentation

Apple's iBeacons

Most people probably have never heard of an iBeacon. It's a feature in iOS 7 that hasn't gotten much coverage. Business Week takes a look at iBeacons and why they matter to Apple's shopping strategy.

For the last couple of years, we heard about near field communication (NFC), which appeared on some Android devices. NFC’s selling point was that its range was designed to be very short, measured in inches. You could just tap your phone onto a cash register to make a payment from your online wallet, which would make things secure, convenient, and—let’s not forget—very futuristic. Except NFC requires an NFC chip, which not all devices have; most smartphones and tablets already come with Bluetooth.

Prior to iBeacon, an iPhone relied on GPS and Wi-Fi tower triangulation to know where it was. Those are great technologies and continue to be a part of iOS. But they have their limits. While GPS and Wi-Fi can determine your location, they can only do so to around 30 feet or so. That’s fine if you’re walking into an airport (something you may have already noticed if you use iOS’s Passbook and see your boarding pass pop up when you arrive at LAX). They’re less useful in smaller spaces like, say, stores.

IBeacon is a third locating system, one that runs on something called Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). “It’s a game-changing technology,” says tech blogger Steve Cheney, who has written extensively on the topic. With BLE, your phone can announce its presence to other devices in range in an extremely power-efficient way.

More at Business Week

9to5Mac provides some good examples of how iBeacons could be used in retail stores to facilitate transactions.

The one-sentence summary is that you can think of iBeacon as like GPS for indoor locations, your phone able to pick up the iBeacon transmissions and work out where it is with a high degree of accuracy. You could, for example, drive into an iBeacon-equipped underground parking garage, park your car there and then have an iPhone app direct you back to your exact parking space when you’re done shopping.

But the positioning side of things is really only half the story. The other half is that what gets triggered in your phone can be much more than a simple ‘You are here’ signal: it can be pretty much anything at all.

More at 9to5Mac

iBeacons could be very helpful in streamlining the shopping experience at Apple's retail stores. It will be interesting to see how the new head of Apple retail, Angela Ahrendts, integrates and leverages them to increase revenue.

Consumer Reports and the iPhone 5S and 5C

Consumer Reports has taken a look at Apple's iPhone 5S and 5C, and compared them to their Android competitors.

The iPhone 5s tops the already great iPhone 5 with a surprisingly reliable fingerprint reader, a faster processor, and better-than-ever camera. And the affordable iPhone 5c is a compelling offering for budget-minded buyers. Consumer Reports testers found both phones delivered better performances than the iPhones they succeed—they even have longer talk times (a tad less than 7 hours). Both phones benefit from the latest operating system upgrade (iOS 7), available to existing iPhone models, which gives the Siri voice-activated assistant access to more apps than before, and allows you to access a new Control Center with a swipe up from the bottom of the screen.

Yet, battery life was still notably shorter than on other phones in our tests, including three of the latest Droids from Motorola, which ran for as long as 24 hours. Also, their small screens, while sharp and bright, can't beat the larger, sharper displays that adorn flagship models from Samsung, LG, and HTC.

More at Consumer Reports

Consumer Reports comments are mostly positive about the iPhone 5S and 5C.

However, I think their comparison to the Android models is a bit of apples and oranges. The iPhone 5S and 5C were never meant to compete head on with the larger Android phones, that will happen next year if and when Apple releases a larger iPhone. So I'm not sure if it makes much sense to compare them directly right now.

iPhone 5 Demand Stops Fragmentation of iOS

One of the biggest problems with the Android platform has been the fragmentation that has occurred between various versions of it over the years. Apple, to its credit, seems to be avoiding this by making the iPhone 5 models so desirable that people are upgrading quickly. This has had the effect of minimizing any iOS fragmentation, according to Apple Insider.

Just three weeks after Apple launched the new iPhone 5c and 5s, total iPhone Web traffic share attributed to iPhone 5 or newer models is up more than four percentage points to 40.6 percent, highlighting a rapid transition to modern hardware that's the exact opposite of the fragmentation occurring on Android.

More at Apple Insider

Android developers have to be a bit frustrated at this point. It must be hard having to support so many different versions of Android. iOS developers have it much easier right now, and it seems that that trend will continue as more and more users upgrade their iOS devices to the latest hardware.

What's your take on all this? Tell me in the comments below.

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