Why Apple’s iBeacon Is Under-Hyped

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Apple products are usually over-hyped. But there’s one that’s radically under-hyped: Apple’s iBeacon positioning system.

So I’m here to turn up the noise on this quiet revolution. You really need to know more about this, because it’s going to change everything.

What Is iBeacon?

iBeacon is often called “indoor GPS.”

While that description does a fine job giving you the general idea of what iBeacon does, it’s literally untrue. First, of course, it doesn’t use the GPS satellite system — no satellites are involved. Second, iBeacon is not restricted to indoor use. It works outdoors, too.

iBeacon is actually a feature of iOS 7 that uses Bluetooth Low Energy (abbreviated as BLE and also called Bluetooth Smart and Bluetooth 4.0). The BLE signal communicates between two devices — a “beacon” — and another device, usually a smartphone.

Once connected, iBeacon can do several things: 1) pinpoint the location of a supporting device running a compatible app; 2) trigger an action on that device; 3) estimate the distance between the beacon and the target device; 4) push messages and other stuff to the phone; 5) enable the phone to send input back to the beacon.

Note that any iBeacon “client” device, such as phone, can quickly and instantly itself become a beacon, locating other clients and pushing out data and actions.

Beacons can be any Apple device that supports iBeacon, and also third party dongles, sticks and other gadgets designed to support Apple’s iBeacon spec.

A company called Estimote has been shipping iBeacon beacons for months.

The cost of the cheapest iBeacon-supporting dedicated beacons will be below $10 per device, so this is a technology for every conceivable type of business or application.

Devices running Android 4.3 can also participate in iBeacon systems.

iBeacon products are being developed as we speak for retail, home automation, gaming, guided tours, replacement for sports and movie tickets, security (be notified when something goes missing, then find it) and many other categories.

Plus, a range of uses are already coming online.

Who’s Using iBeacon Already

iBeacon applications are spreading all over the place.

All 254 US Apple stores got iBeaconized in December. And Apple has applied for a patent for an iBeacon-based restaurant and reservation system.

More than 150 grocery stores in the US started using iBeacon applications Monday. Most of these involve pushing coupons at shoppers for the foods they’re looking at. The service was developed by InMarket, which installed iBeacon sensors at Safeway stores in Cleveland, Ohio, Seattle, Wash., and San Francisco, Calif., as well as other chain stores in other locations. iBeacon is perfect for this because stores can identify and reward frequent shoppers, push out coupons on a moments notice and eventually do deep market research about where people linger or rush, which isles are skipped and other metrics.

Macy’s department stores also got iBeacon (via Shopkick) at stores in New York and San Francisco.

A startup called Exact Editions is offering free magazine samples via iBeacon.

CES used iBeacon as a publicity stunt scavenger hunt. The first three people check in at all the beacons placed all over CES won prizes.

The Swirl marketing platform is using iBeacon, too. The company makes what they call SecureCast Beacons for pushing targeted marketing messages at shoppers who are browsing specific locations in a store.

Major League Baseball is testing iBeacons for automated check-ins, videos related to location, ticket availability and discounts and coupons.

In fact, app developers of all kinds are looking at iBeacon integration in the apps they’re already shipping, as well as thinking about new apps they might be able to create.

Mobile games that take place in The Real World are on the rise. A great example is Ingress from Google’s Niantic Labs. But it turns out that iBeacon is great for mobile meatspace gaming. The Tap Lab CEO Dave Bisceglia told Recode this week that iBeacon is great for game developers. His own company is testing the integration of iBeacon into its Tiny Tycoons game.

Other companies are dribbling out beacon micro-location products. But Apple’s iBeacon is far ahead in both the maturity of the platform and acceptance by other companies.

This is a big deal, folks. And it’s going to change everything.