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Where it’s at: iBeacons are the next level in geolocation

By Paul Williams / August 26, 2013


If you’re looking to improve your iPhone or iPad app’s location awareness, you need to check out one of most interesting new iOS 7 features, iBeacons. This functionality leverages Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) technology, allowing you to add geofencing capabilities to your app design. Instead of using satellite-based signals to track your users’ locations, highly localized BLE signals from a variety of signal emitters — including iDevices — provide a more granular level of interaction with apps.

BLE technology

BLE, which is also branded as Bluetooth SMART, is the technology that allows iBeacons to work their magic. However, unless a device supports the Bluetooth 4.0 specification, BLE is not compatible with its predecessor.

Bluetooth SMART uses less power than the original version and operates within a range of up to 150 feet, making hardware implementation easier and less expensive. Standard Bluetooth is currently found on a wide array of devices, such as fitness equipment, as well as smartphones, computers and tablets, but that doesn’t mean those tools will soon be obsolete.

Apple mobile devices that support Bluetooth 4.0 include the iPhone 4S, iPhone 5 and all tablets since the iPad 3, including the iPad mini. Additionally, models of the MacBook Air and Mac mini since 2011 and models of the MacBook Pro and the iMac since 2012 support the standard. Users of older Macs can buy a USB dongle to add Bluetooth 4.0 support.

A host of applications for iBeacons

iBeacons raise the bar for location-based apps on the iOS platform. For example, an iPhone or iPad acting as an iBeacon might be able to perform home automation on BLE-enabled devices such as lights, doors or shades. And it’s not a stretch to imagine iBeacons could help provide an interactive tour of a museum or historical site. The possibilities are only limited by developer imagination.

iOS architect Conrad Stoll feels iBeacons will lead to a host of interesting geographic applications. “Apple’s announcement of iBeacons at WWDC is also really exciting for mapping apps,” he says. “Developers will be able to build really engaging experiences around points of interest that would have been very difficult to do before.”

A new opportunity for localized advertising

Improving location-based marketing is another big win for iBeacons and BLE. An interactive shopping app, for example, would be able to show you e-coupons as you walk past items in a grocery store or suggest accessories for clothing in a boutique. For companies looking at in-app advertising as a revenue source, iBeacons look to improve the efficacy of advertising through better targeting.

In fact, the ad network Adomaly promises to support this new iOS feature. According to the Adomaly website, “Using Apple iBeacon and Sonic Notify sBeacon technology, you are now able to send location-based media and ads instantly to your customers when they are at the point of purchase, whether in a retail store like Walgreens or a restaurant/bar like Friday’s.”

The new functionality of iBeacon hopes to enhance the geofencing previously offered by Apple’s Passbook. Throw in e-commerce using near field communication (NFC), and it’s the dawn of a new age of brick-and-mortar shopping.

If you’re planning any kind of app that depends on localization, make sure you take into account the range of features offered by iBeacons. It has the potential to revolutionize everything from shopping to museums to home automation, making it one of the most intriguing and powerful new iOS 7 features.