In the tech world, everyone seems to be talking about iBeacons. It's not part of the dinner-table conversation yet but it will be in some time to come. What exactly is iBeacons? And what does it have to do with the average iPhone user?
There's a lot of stuff Apple works on and many of these are under-the-hood, affecting how smartphone technology works. Once in a while, something big comes up: something that doesn't toot its horns but has a profound effect on our lives. Some people – analysts and some experts – say that iBeacons is that thing. This makes it important to know everything there is about iBeacons from a user’s point of view.
So what exactly is iBeacon?
Think of iBeacon as some sort of a smart tracking system for your iPhone. When you enter a shop or a specific location (where there is an iBeacon transmitter), your iPhone is ID-d by the iBeacon. If you're in Starbucks, your iPhone might show you notifications about an offer or your points etc. In some other retail store, an iBeacon alert can remind you about something you have on your buying Wishlist along with relevant offers and stuff.
It's basically a smarter way to help a retailer / user of iBeacon to interact with his/her customer.
So far, the best examples and implementations we've seen are those in the retail sector. Macy's and Starbucks, for instance. But iBeacons can – and hopefully, will – be used elsewhere too. One popular use-case is trains: with iBeacons, an app can find out when you board a train and help in tracking your location. From there, the possibilities of usage/features builds more.
How iBeacon works?
There are two points to every iBeacon system:
- The transmitter which is fixed in a place (like the entrance of a retail store or the train)
- Your iPhone with its Bluetooth ON which acts as the receiver
When you enter the store, the small iBeacon transmitter sends a small packet of data to your iPhone. When it gets the response, iBeacon triggers whatever action has been programmed.
Bluetooth LE / Bluetooth Smart
As you noticed, iBeacons uses Bluetooth. More specifically, it uses Bluetooth Low Energy (also called Bluetooth Smart or Bluetooth LE). From an iPhone user's point of view, this is not vastly important.
Bluetooth Low Energy matters to people who use the iBeacon transmitters in their stores. This is because Bluetooth Smart runs on very little power and the devices can be quite small/tiny – both are important criteria.
Location-tracking? Should I be wary of privacy concerns?
So basically you're saying that iBeacons track your location? No. iBeacons does not track your location like, say, a GPS app. iBeacons only identify when you (your iPhone) get into a particular area/location where the iBeacon transmitter exists.
It's closer to geofences introduced in iOS 4/5. Geofences are specific areas on earth that are tagged with the GPS coordinate. When you are into this zone, specific apps/triggers are set in motion.
With iBeacons, you are not “tracked” – the tech only identifies you when you enter the zone.
The way iBeacons work in iOS 7.x, you need to have installed the app in order to let iBeacon work. For instance, if you're going to Starbucks, iBeacon works only if you have the iBeacon-compatible Starbucks app installed. So on and so forth for all the other shops. Note that you don't have to have the app running in the background. Even if you quit the app completely, iBeacons will still work and trigger the action.
Starting with iOS 7.1, iBeacons are opt-out. That is, they are enabled by default. You have to get into Settings to turn off iBeacons (found as Bluetooth (proximity)).
Alternatively, you can turn off Bluetooth or delete the corresponding app.
How to use iBeacons?
For starters, the retailer should have iBeacons installed. Two, you should have the correct app installed. Also, compatibility! Here's the list: iPhone 4s and later, iPad 3rd gen and later, iPad mini 1 & later. iBeacons also works on iPod Touch 5th gen.
Some Android devices also support iBeacon.