Apple's next revolution may be Bluetooth-powered iBeacons

The Bluetooth Low Energy-based tech allows for all sorts of interactions in public spaces, from stores to museums to first responders

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When you go to a museum or store and get within range of an iBeacon, your iPhone could be asked to connect to a service that provides information, coupons, and so forth. Done ham-handedly, this could be a quick turnoff to people, who would perceive it as creepy spam. More likely, you'd need an app installed from which you opted in -- your museum might have an app, and certainly every major retailer will. Apple's been very pro-user when it comes to privacy, giving users control over whether their location is shared, microphone activated, and notifications enabled on a per-app and per-website basis; I'm not too worried about iBeacons becoming the mobile version of a walk down the Vegas Strip, at least not on Apple devices.

But it's not just about getting information from iBeacons related to what you are near. The technology also allows you to query the beacon and, thus, its back-end service, such as to find out where belts are in the store or when the next art film is showing in the museum -- and of course to buy related goods. In other words, iBeacons is a platform for interacting digitally with the real world, and that shoud be enormously powerful. The decade-old promise of location-based services should finally arrive. As an example, Major League Baseball today announced it will use the iBeacons technolgy in ballparks.

Also, the iBeacons API in iOS and OS X lets devices be their own beacons. That means an iOS device -- say, a retailer's iPod Touch-based checkout register or a firefighter's cellular iPad Mini -- could be the device that other devices interact with, becoming a mobile hub. For field forces and roving service employees, this too could be huge.

Apple is using interactive BLE already, in its third-generation Apple TV. If you bring a BLE-equipped iOS 7 device in range of an Apple TV that has Bluetooth turned on, the devices see each other and you're prompted to use the iOS device as a remote control for the Apple TV. In this case, the Apple TV is acting as the beacon. The use of BLE's autodiscovery APIs is how the AirDrop peer-to-peer file-sharing feature is initiated in iOS 7 as well.

Given that BLE is implemented in many more devices than Apple's, why do I characterize this as an Apple innovation? For the same reason the iPod changed the game even though there were plenty of MP3 players, that the iPhone changed the game even though there were dominant mobile phones, and that the iPad changed the game even though there had been tablets for years. That reason: Apple is great at crafting the full experience and making it compelling. (That's why beacons vendors have started calling their devices iBeacons.)

BlackBerry is certainly in no position to lead here, and the Android world is too fragmented. Google's approach of keeping Android updates secret from both manufacturers and developers until it has released its own version means each vendor has to play catch-up, and developers then have to figure out how to support the variations. Microsoft could take leadership, but there are no signs it will.

By contrast, when iBeacons apps and hardware start showing up, tens of millions of iPhone, iPad, and Mac users will be compatible with them out of the gate. That'll also push retailers and developers to optimize for iBeacons, making a de facto standard of the Apple beacons technology.

Perhaps Google and Microsoft will treat BLE beacons more strategically and we'll see a more platform-neutral approach evolve. That'd be great. It would make the Next Big Thing that much bigger.

This article, "Apple's next revolution may be Bluetooth-powered iBeacons," was originally published at Read more of Galen Gruman's Smart User blog. For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.


Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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