iBeacons Explained


Mubaloo Sarah Weller croppediBeacons is a core-location technology that’s been enabled in iOS 7 to help pinpoint exactly where a device is on a micro level, even if that device is deep underground. Rather than using GPS, cellular and wi-fi to locate the device, iBeacons use Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) to look for beacon signals from other BLE emitters. People have asked why Apple hasn’t adopted NFC; this is the answer.

Any device that’s shipped with Bluetooth 4.0, including Macs, iPads and non-Apple devices, can technically act as a beacon. Beyond being the answer to solving indoor location mapping, iBeacons can also be used to push content to users in apps, based on their proximity to other beacons.

Aside from the hundreds of millions of devices already in use, there are now third-party beacons available for businesses and developers to provide new opportunities for marketing and retail experiences.

This means users will be able to walk into a retail store or cafe and find out about product information, receive offers or possibly even make a purchase. This will be done without tapping their device, scanning a QR code or sending an SMS shortcode. They will be able to find exactly where a product is in a retail store based on their location – even if it’s hidden away.

Micro location offers
One  example of this in action comes from Major League Baseball’s ‘At the Ballpark’ app in a trial at Citi Field in New York shown to CNET. As long as the app is running in the background, when a user heads toward the stadium, beacons are used to help pinpoint exactly where they are. As they get near merchandise stands or food outlets, beacons can be used to send micro location offers or messages to the user. The app is essentially populated with information specific to the stadium to really enhance opportunities for contextual relevance.

Imagine this built into any outdoor advertising or on the tube. Location-based mobile marketing could potentially become even more powerful as a result. Where NFC would require customers to have devices with NFC chips and get within 8 inches of the product/advert, a single beacon can cover an area of up to 50 metres.

As this is an implementation of BLE, it isn’t going to be exclusive to Apple either. Google has included support for BLE in Android Jelly Bean (4.3) which should mean that beacons can deliver a similar experience to compatible Android devices. Microsoft has also been trialling the technology with Kinect-style facial recognition in one of its cafeterias to help process payments.

PayPal is also getting in on the game. Recently, the payments giant announced the launch of Beacon, a new add-on hardware device for retailers that leverages bluetooth technology to enable consumers to pay at stores completely hands-free.

Modern devices have a huge number of sensors and radios built into them that help with use cases from health and exercise to location-based services and payments. NFC has its definite use case for payments and pairing devices together. It is a technology that will likely stay around, and remain popular but when it comes to Apple, it seems that BLE is the technology the firm is backing.


Trojan horse
BLE is a far cheaper technology for retailers to roll out, and the use cases are only really just being discovered. There is a large amount of leg work and education to be done by companies pushing this technology surrounding the privacy and security concerns that will come up. When you consider iBeacons, Passbook and TouchID, it quickly becomes apparent that Apple has been quietly laying the foundations for what could become the real trojan horse in mobile marketing, payments and location services.

Estimote is one company already offering marketers the chance to test out this technology. Three beacons can be purchased for $99, or with two iOS devices (released since 4S) you can test it out yourself.

Estimote is offering a personalised micro location-based notification service through the use of its BLE beacons, and is targeting the retail industry. Imagine walking into your favourite clothes shop with your BLE-enabled mobile device. The clothes shop is using third-party beacons and they are dotted around various points of the shop. Essentially, these beacons can send personalised content to your mobile device, so if you are browsing T-shirts for example, the beacon will sense this and send a personalised message to your mobile device. This could be anything from a discount voucher to information on matching items in the shop.

There are many scenarios where BLE technology can be incorporated into apps to improve customer service and business processes, as well as improving staff productivity and efficiency. We are really interested to see how this technology progresses and also what will happen to NFC and QR codes once BLE becomes more recognised.


Sarah Weller is MD (London) at Mubaloo