What iBeacon Deployment Says About NFC

On December 5th, Apple deployed iBeacons (Bluetooth-powered stations) in 254 stores nationwide, creating a new shopping experience for its customers. When customers walk into Apple stores, their location can be detected by iBeacons which send location specific messages to iPhones or iPads.

To receive this service, customers need to have iOS7 on their devices and an app from the Apple Store with tracking permissions. Customers also need to have Bluetooth turned on since iBeacon transmitters use Bluetooth 4.0.

Bluetooth is a wireless connectivity technology that was invented in 1994. It consumes a lot of energy and drains cell phone batteries fast. Blue Low Energy (BLE) was introduced in 2006 and was merged into the Bluetooth core specification 4.0 in 2010. It consumes much less energy than the conventional Bluetooth. Apple deployed the technology recently with the new release of iOS7.

iOS7 enables iBeacon to communicate with iPhone and iPad through BLE. The successful deployment of iBeacon within 3 months of the iOS7 release demonstrates that vision can be realized when a plan is well thought out and executed. At the same time, iOS7 does seem to have a lot of problems and improvements need to be made.

In September 18th when Apple released iPhone 5S and 5C with BLE, the NFC ecosystem was anxious about the development since the large market share of Apple devices heavily impact technology adoption. The NFC ecosystem was hoping that Apple would adopt NFC and help to move the technology forward at a faster pace. Now, there are questions about whether NFC will ever be fully adopted since the iBeacon BLE technology was Apple’s choice.

Personally, I think BLE is a complimentary technology to NFC. The two do not have a mutually exclusive relationship. NFC is short range (4cm) wireless connectivity technology, and it can’t be tracked unless a tap happens. It works in different modes; active to active and active to passive. BLE can be tracked whenever you turn the Bluetooth on. It operates within 32 feet and it works in active to active mode. Both technologies can facilitate a more integrated consumer experience.  For more details, please reference my book “Everyday NFC: Near Field Communication Explained”.

iBeacon vs. NFC

“Will the lack of iPhone support for NFC kill NFC?” This LinkedIn NFC Group discussion thread has been going on for the last 20 days.  It is a good discussion with various opinions on NFC’s future. One topic that came up was “iBeacon vs. NFC”.

Beacons are small wireless sensors that can placed inside any physical space. An iPhone supporting Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) with iOS7 becomes an iBeacon that can receive data from other beacons. It also can detect other iBeacons when they are nearby. An iBeacon also serves as an indoor GPS with built-in indoor mapping capability.

Since BLE’s connectivity range is 10 to 50 feet, it creates a location mapping zone for iBeacon. When a customer steps into an iBeacon zone, indoor mapping will indicate the location of the customer and retailers can use this information to send customers special promotions or personalized messages based on their shopping histories. Retailers know exactly where you are and how long you stay there; even if you are in the restroom. Your movements are transparent in the iBeacon zone.

NFC connectivity works within 4cm (1.57 inches) between NFC-enabled devices or an NFC-enabled device and a tag. It’s a very short distance contactless technology and it’s more secure because of the short distance. You might be tracked when you tap but not when you move around.

I think, even if Apple decides not to adopt the technology, NFC will have its own market for many applications as demonstrated in Europe and Asia. At the same time, iBeacon apps might be released quickly since the APIs are easy to use. Our new generation is so used to share their life publically through social media that they might enjoy using the apps; especially gaming ones; regardless of privacy issues.

Want to learn more about NFC? Please check out my newly released book “NFC: Near Field Communication Explained” and attend WIMA-NFC & Proximity Solution Conference.