Apple’s iBeacon system has been widely ignored and is poorly understood. Yet it’s one of the most transformative mobile technologies to come along in the last 10 years.
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The public’s ambivalent or hostile relationship with iBeacon exists because iBeacon is invisible to users. And, in any event, iBeacon is presented as either a boring or creepy way for retail stores to track customers.
All that is changing. I’m going to tell you how iBeacon is being deployed in increasingly fun places. But first, let me dispel some misconceptions about iBeacon.
4 myths about iBeacon
1. iBeacon is an “indoor location” technology. Apple’s iBeacon is beacon technology. Beacons are usually described as “indoor location” technology, but that’s misleading. They work outside just as well as they work inside. Other location technologies, such as cell tower triangulation and Wi-Fi-based location tools, also work both indoors and out. The key attribute of beacons is not that they’re for use inside buildings, but that they enable very precise location calculations — to within a few inches
Beacons are inexpensive transmitters (costing as little as $5 each) that broadcast low-power Bluetooth signals, which specially built phone apps can receive.
2. iBeacon is for Apple products only. Any smartphone running an app designed to be compatible with iBeacon can be used with an iBeacon setup. That includes phones running Android and other mobile operating systems.
However, Apple’s iBeacon technology is interesting in that any Apple device running the current operating system can itself act as a beacon in addition to accepting signals from beacons.
So it’s not true that iBeacon is for Apple products only — any phone can detect and use iBeacons. But it is true that, at present, only Apple products running iOS can act as beacons in an iBeacon setting.
3. iBeacons track you and harvest personal information when you walk nearby. Let’s be very clear about this one: Beacons cannot receive data.
However, they can tell an app on your phone that your phone is very close to the beacon. But it’s your phone that’s sending that information — the beacon can give your phone only its unique identifiers. It requires an app and a service to turn that identifier into something meaningful. If you don’t download an iBeacon app, keep your Bluetooth on and give explicit permission to the app, iBeacon cannot be used to track you.
4. iBeacon allows the NSA to track your location. The iBeacon system is a horrible surveillance tool. For starters, as mentioned above, it only works if the user downloads an app and the user has to grant the app permission. Also: Your phone (and therefore your carrier) already knows you’re at the mall, and it can probably tell you’re in the Apple store. What iBeacon technology determines is that you’re near the iPad section of the store — and that information is of little use to the NSA.
Also: There’s no evidence that the NSA has ever used iBeacon to track anyone.
Where iBeacon is popping up
Apple’s iBeacon has from the beginning been associated with boring retail implementations, and those are totally unseen because shoppers aren’t in the habit of running an app while shopping in brick-and-mortar stores. But now iBeacon systems are showing up in more fun and interesting places.